Gaza Breakout: Strategic Issues Exposed

By Nicola Nasser

The breaches created by bombs and bulldozers in the border wall between Gaza and Egypt have been described as "the biggest prison breakout in history". For a brief moment, Palestinians hemmed in by the Israeli blockade caught the air of relative freedom. The question now is whether the breach will be made permanent, which is possible if Palestinians engage in national dialogue, as Hamas and Egypt have urged, or whether it will become cause for broadening the internal Palestinian rift, a spectre raised by the Palestinian president’s determination to return to Gaza via that very breach Hamas opened, but under Israeli auspices. As this would be contingent upon security coordination with Israel, the Rafah crossing would revert to being one of Gaza’s prison doors, open and shut at Israel’s whim, as was the case before June 2007.

Nevertheless, this appears to be the direction in which Mahmoud Abbas is heading. In a 27 January meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert he asked that Rafah be reopened in accordance with the border crossing agreement of 2005. Following that meeting, he announced that he would reiterate that request in his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Hamas immediately rejected Abbas’s proposal, which can only signify that the crossing will remain officially closed and that the beleaguered people of Gaza will have to take matters in their own hands when necessary, as occurred during the last pilgrimage season and the breach two weeks ago.

Cooperating with the occupation over security is only one of the issues that erupted with the crashing of the border wall between Gaza and Egypt. Despite the temporary breathing space that provided — a humanitarian window for the people of Gaza to acquire some basic necessities — the Israeli crime of inflicting cruel collective punishment on a people under occupation is ongoing and threatens to worsen. Surely the popular frustration that vented itself on the border wall was a desperate call to all concerned parties to revise their positions and the policies that led to the current situation. Yet instead of taking heed of that call, and in spite of the major strategic issues that have arisen, these parties, be they Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian or American, appear to be collaborating to restore the situation to the way it was before.

Although US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confessed that there was a need to "begin to think creatively of how to handle the situation in Gaza", the White House has given no practical indication that it is doing any such thing. The same applies to Egypt and Israel. As Haaretz reported on 25 January, "conflicting information from the Israeli and Egyptian foreign ministries suggest that both sides feel that a fundamental and, perhaps, strategic change has occurred in Gaza and that they want to turn the wheel back but doubt whether this possibility exists."

The tide of popular desperation that tore down the barriers at Rafah, and with it all the legal and political arrangements upon which they stood, took all parties and their respective strategists by surprise. Perhaps the only exception was Hamas, the primary target of those arrangements whose purpose was to tighten the Israeli stranglehold on Gaza, turning this 25 kilometre long, six kilometre wide strip of land into the largest concentration camp in history, its million and a half inmates easy targets for F-16 fighters and Mirkava tank raids that have already taken the lives of 140 Palestinian civilians since the Annapolis meeting on 27 November 2007. These deaths are yet further tragic testimony to the gross disparity in might in accordance with which Israel’s sophisticated weaponry thunders into Gaza purportedly in retaliation for the primitive homemade shells (termed "missiles" not only in the Israeli, US and Western press, but also by most Arab media) that Palestinian resistance fighters have fired into Israel and that have not caused a single Israeli death.

That the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and the official Arab order as represented in Annapolis paid only lip-service to opposition against the blockade and have supported a halt to all "missile-fire" by Palestinian resistance fighters has effectively strengthened Israeli-US excuses for resorting to excessive force "in retaliation" against the "missiles" and for perpetuating the economic stranglehold, which anywhere else would be regarded as a crime against humanity that Israel intends to continue with impunity, as Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert have indicated in Davos and in Herzliya, respectively.

The popular Palestinian uprising visibly demonstrated the moral and practical wrongs of the situation in Gaza and cast to the fore a number of strategic issues that most parties remain eager to sweep under the carpet. Foremost of these is the need to reconsider the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. Under the terms of this treaty, in accordance with which Egypt regained sovereignty over Sinai, Egypt is not allowed to post more than 750 soldiers along its border with Palestine and Israel. As Mohamed Hassanein Heikal pointed out in a recent interview on Al-Jazeera, Egypt’s sovereignty over the peninsula is incomplete. But more practically, as Haaretz of 25 January observed, "a few hundred Egyptian policemen had little chance of preventing thousands from crossing over, even by using force as they tried to do." It is curiously ironic that Tel Aviv insists that Egypt control its border with Gaza yet continues to reject Egyptian demands to amend the treaty to permit for a larger security force along the border. Western military experts have estimated that Egypt would need to station at least 3,000 troops in Arish and Rafah, along with appropriate air, naval and artillery support, in order to adequately protect the border.

Events along the border also raised question marks around the role of the 400-member UN multinational force that is also stationed in Sinai under the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. According to some sources, this force evacuated its base in Al-Gora to the northeast of Arish on the morning of the day the human tidal wave crashed through the border at Rafah.

A third strategic concern was thrown into relief by remarks made by Israeli Defence Minister Matan Vilnai. Commenting on President Mubarak’s vow that Egypt would not permit a human catastrophe on its borders, Vilnai said, "when Gaza opens up on the other side we will no longer be responsible for it. Therefore, we want to cut our connections with it and let Egypt take over responsibility."

Of course, the aim of the Palestinian national cause is to end the occupation and all control it has over Palestinian land. However, the Israeli defence minister was obviously not thinking along these lines. Rather, his aims echoed those of former prime minister Ariel Sharon who, under pressure from the Palestinian resistance, aimed to sever the West Bank from Gaza and then partition the West Bank in accordance with a long-term "interim" arrangement worked out with an agreeable Palestinian and/or Arab leadership. In this context, Vilnai’s remarks were a blatant attempt to embarrass Egyptian authorities. Effectively he was saying that Cairo could choose between assuming humanitarian responsibility for the people of Gaza or security responsibility over the border, which is to say complicity in the crime of deliberating starving the people of Gaza. Egypt rejected both choices, risking a crisis in Egyptian- Israeli relations and hence a crisis in Egyptian-American relations that could affect levels of aid sent from Washington to Cairo. The perils inherent in either lending itself to the economic boycott or in assuming the occupying power’s responsibilities and, perhaps, opening the gates to a new Palestinian exodus into the Sinai, are too great.

But the Israeli threat to involve Egypt in the process of severing Gaza from the West Bank poses an even greater strategic threat to the Palestinian national project that the Palestinian president claims is his pursuit. Specifically, it jeopardises the territorial unity to which this project aspires and, more immediately, it will deepen national divisions and close the escape hatch in the blockade that the Palestinian people succeeded in opening.

As if the foregoing did not offer sufficient cause to realise that the interests of the Palestinian national cause were in danger and that Palestinian national consensus is more vital than ever to protect these interests, there are any number of questions regarding the determination of the two major Palestinian rivals to butt heads over the leadership of a people that succeeded in solving a problem where their leaders failed. This leads us to another important matter raised by the changes in Gaza, namely the possibility of opening Rafah as the sole outlet of Gaza to the outside world in the event the Israelis keep up their blockade.

Egyptian diplomats have consistently refused repeated Palestinian requests to open the Rafah crossing unilaterally since the Israelis closed all other ports of entry in June 2007. They rested their refusal, first, on the Palestinian-Israeli-Egyptian- EU-US agreement signed following Israel’s "disengagement" from Gaza in 2005 and, second, on the basis of the Palestinian president’s commitment to the same agreement and his repeated requests to be allowed to resume responsibility for the Gaza side of the crossing.

It is important to bear in mind, here, that that agreement came into effect before the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian parliament had a chance to examine all its details. Only later, therefore, did they discover that the agreement enabled Israel to maintain remote control over the crossing and that the agreement, moreover, was conceived as an interim arrangement to be reviewed and renewed annually. This is the agreement that went into operation for six months before European observers withdrew and to which the Palestinian president so much wants to return.

Meanwhile, acting head of the government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, proposed a meeting with Abbas and Mubarak in Cairo with the purpose of reaching an agreement over the reopening of Rafah. The arrangements that the Hamas leader suggested rest on two fundamental conditions: that Israel would have no authority over the crossing and that it would be administered by a national partnership with an altered role for European observers. To be sure, on more than one occasion Egyptian officials have said that there has to be Palestinian national consensus over Rafah and that Egypt would agree to whatever the Palestinians collectively decided. In addition, President Mubarak has voiced his impatience at Palestinian rifts and urged Palestinian factions not to drag Egypt into their squabbles, which would only add to their difficulties in dealing with their crisis with Israel over the crossing.

But the Palestinian president, until now, has given no indication that he will ever accept Haniyeh’s proposal for a three- party meeting in Cairo. Meanwhile, he continues to reiterate his readiness to resume administration of the crossing, while refusing to clarify whether he would be ready to reconsider the former arrangements and while, simultaneously, preparing for his next meeting with Olmert — his eighth since the "Gaza crisis" erupted last summer.

There remains another important question connected to all other strategic issues raised by the collapse of the Rafah border wall, which is the US’s ability to act as an impartial broker in the search for a just and comprehensive solution to the Arab- Israeli conflict. When allies of Washington, such as Egypt, and those reliant on Washington, such as the Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah, are forced to criticise the US administration for its complicity with Israel’s crimes against humanity in Gaza, it seems time for these parties to reconsider their alliance with, and/or reliance on, Washington. Indeed, Washington has been working to obstruct a non-binding statement from the president of the UN Security Council, calling upon Israel to lift the blockade and other acts of collective punishment on Gaza and reopen all border crossings. The other 14 members of the Security Council have signed four drafts of this statement, the last modified by the Europeans to include a reference to Palestinian "missiles". One can not help but to recall Washington’s similar rush to shield Israel when it obstructed a Security Council resolution to halt the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in order to give Israel the time it needed to accomplish its and Washington’s objectives from that invasion. Unfortunately, the threat by the Arab group at the UN to press for a resolution (as opposed to a presidential statement) that would force the US into using its veto is hollow. After all, when has Washington ever been shy about wielding its veto power in order to defend the Israeli occupation and the perpetuation of its crimes?

-The writer is a veteran Arab journalist based in Birzeit in occupied Palestine.

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