"It's only going to be temporary and things are likely to get worse again"

Here is a probably correct comment from a rueful Palestinian interviewed by The Guardian in Al-Arish, the northern Sinai: ” ‘We were hoping that opening the borders with Egypt would bring us relief’, he said. ‘But it doesn’t solve the problem. It’s only going to be temporary and things are likely to get worse again’.” Comment from an article in The Guardian here.

Abbas says "No Way!"

There will be no three-way talks with Egypt (Hamas, Ramallah and Egypt) about the situation at the Gazan-Egyptian border, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in Ramallah on Saturday.

Hamas must reverse its “military coup” of mid-June, in which it trounced Fatah security forces in Gaza, and hand Gaza back to Ramallah first, Abbas said.

Abbas is scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem on Sunday — and though the meeting is part of the post-Annapolis process of “final status” negotiations on “core issues”, the situation in Gaza and at the Gazan-Egyptian border has been added to the agenda.

Haaretz reported Saturday that “Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will ask Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to end a blockade in Gaza and accept his offer to control Gaza’s border crossings, Palestinian officials said on Saturday. The two leaders are expected to meet on Sunday to discuss how to push forward with peace talks after Hamas breached Gaza’s border with Egypt in defiance of an Israeli blockade … Abbas will also ask Olmert to lift immediately travel restrictions in the occupied West Bank, officials said. Israel has so far balked at removing its hundred of checkpoints that crisscross the West Bank. ‘The number one issue on the agenda of Sunday’s talks between President Abbas and Olmert will be ending the siege imposed on Gaza, and the need to end the siege in the West Bank as well, as there are hundreds of checkpoints there’, senior Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo told Reuters”. This Haaretz report is published here.

Meanwhile, the Gazan-Egyptian border was still at least partially open on Saturday, despite Egyptian deadlines to close it on Friday.

The AP reported that “The traffic flowed in both directions. Many Egyptian cars were seen in Gaza, including a truck carrying $65,000 worth of cheese, candy bars and cleaning supplies for a Gaza City supermarket. [There were also delegations of Egyptians visiting Hamas officials in Gaza, according to other reports.] However, by midmorning, Egyptian riot police and armored vehicles deployed to stop the flow of cars. Egyptian security forces also asked shopkeepers in El Arish to close, apparently to discourage Gazans from driving there. Pedestrians were still able to cross the border…” This AP report is published here.

Egypt reportedly invites Ramallah leaders and Hamas to discuss border

According to CNN, “Arab media was reporting early Saturday local time that Egypt’s government has invited the leaders of Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah group to Egypt to discuss the situation. ‘I and all of my brothers in the Hamas leadership welcome participating in this meeting and will seek to make the dialogue a success’, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told CNN in a telephone interview from Damascus early Saturday. Meshaal said, however, that he has received no official invitation from Egypt and was responding to the reports of the planned invitation. He said he does not know how Fatah will respond. Hamas and Fatah have been involved in a power struggle over creating a unity government that has resulted in violence in Gaza and the West Bank … Hamas leaders have denied participating in bringing down the wall, but voiced support for the action. Palestinians in Gaza have faced difficulty obtaining supplies since Israel sealed its border with Gaza one week ago in an effort to quell rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel. That was on top of shortages of such items as cigarettes, cement, chocolate and soda since Israel began restricting the flow of non-humanitarian goods into Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory in June”. [n.b., There was also a layer of earlier financial and import restrictions imposed by Israel since Hamas won a majority of seats in elections for the legislative council and then formed a PA government in the spring of 2006]

CNN also reported that “It was not immediately clear whether Egypt intends to seal the border or merely regulate the flow“.

This CNN report is here.

Hamas acting boldly – shooting Egyptian police dogs unleased on Gazans, and patrolling Egyptian side of the border

The AP has just updated its story on the situation at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, which Egypt did not close today, despite a deadline passing: “Militants in black clothing, some of them masked, stood atop a bulldozer as it knocked down concrete slabs under the watchful eyes of Hamas security officials, who turned a blind eye and were later seen patrolling on the Egyptian side of the border.
Thousands of Palestinians flooded into Egypt, pushing through several openings as Egyptian troops retreated to their bases on the other side of the border. Palestinians positioned cranes next to the border and lifted crates of supplies into Gaza, including camels and cows … Earlier Friday, Hamas gunmen fanned out along the Gaza side of the border, attempting to create order. For the first time since the border wall was torn down in a series of blasts on Wednesday, Gaza’s Hamas rulers deployed their most elite forces to contain the rowdy crowd. Hamas is clearly seeking to flex its muscles ahead of a potential new border agreement with Egypt that the militants hope will help end a 2-year-old blockade imposed by Israel and the West. The group called for a three-way meeting among Hamas, Egypt and the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas to try to come up with a new border arrangement for Gaza. ‘If the leadership in Ramallah refuses this call, we will not stand idle until the siege overruns life in Gaza’, Hamas said in a statement … Egyptian forces shot in the air, fired water cannons and — in a particularly forceful display — deployed dogs to hinder the flow of Gazans into Egypt. Dogs are considered impure by observant Muslims. As bulldozers ripped down the wall and Gazans jumped over, soldiers ran with their dogs to chase the infiltrators. Hamas militants then opened fire on the dogs, killing three of them. An Egyptian soldier was slightly wounded in the leg, likely from gunshots fired by Hamas militants on the Gazan side, an Egyptian officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to the media. Five policemen were also injured by stones hurled by Gazans. Egyptian ambulances rushed into a patch of land separating Egypt from Gaza to pick up the injured, with Hamas militants clearing the area of people so they could arrive and do their job. Egypt has rejected any suggestion of assuming responsibility for the crowded, impoverished territory — a hot issue in light of comments this week by Israeli officials who said the border breach could relieve the Jewish state of its burdens in Gaza. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the territory in 2005, but it still controls access into and out of Gaza, in addition to its airspace and harbors. Israel also provides the fuel needed to run Gaza’s only power plant — the withholding of which is currently causing severe power outages. In an interview published Friday, President Hosni Mubarak decried the situation in Gaza as ‘unacceptable’ and called on Israel to ‘lift its siege’ and ‘solve the problem’. ‘They should get things back to normal according to previous agreements and understandings’, Mubarak told the weekly Al-Osboa. He also invited rival Palestinian factions to Cairo for talks, but did not mention a date. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said Palestinians had to keep the barrier open ‘until the crossings are reopened’. ‘The gaps shouldn’t be closed because they provide urgent assistance to the Palestinians’, he said. Both Egypt and Israel restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006, and further tightened the closure after Hamas seized control of the area by force last June”. This AP report is posted here.

Reflections on the Gaza break-out – a $130 million dollar shopping spree

Breaking out is preferable to breaking down, which is what was happening before Hamas toppled the iron wall that Israel erected to separate the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

It’s fascinating that work to weaken the structure with blow-torches was going on for weeks before the bulldozers moved in this week…

What’s going to happen next is anybody’s guess — and there are a lot of guesses, mostly focussing on a narrow range of options.

I’m not going to go there, as Barak said in Davos to a journalist who asked him if he were one of those who is pleased that the break-out happened, as it will make it easy for Israel to get rid of Gaza now by handing it over to Egypt.

The break-out itself is very interesting. Some organized Gaza businessmen were on the phone by 7 am, after the wall went down at 6:30, ordering supplies from Cairo that were later delivered to Rafah. This was a good idea, as Rafah and El-Arish were soon out of stock.

Here are some more interesting tidbits:

Haaretz reported today that “Cranes were positioned next to the border, lifting crates of supplies over into Gaza”. This comment was in this Haaretz article here.

Another Haaretz story said that “Egyptian merchants arrived at Rafah with a particularly large and varied supply of items Palestinians were keen to buy. Since the breach in the wall, the Egyptian security forces have been busy trying to contain the traffic, mainly by setting up roadblocks preventing Gaza Palestinians and journalists from traveling westward. They have also been trying to identify those responsible for bringing down the wall, and interviewed some of their contacts in the Palestinians’ Popular Resistance Committees, a source affiliated with the local Gaza-based militias told Haaretz. Hundreds of Palestinian students who are registered in universities abroad tried to persuade the Egyptian authorities to allow them to continue to Cairo so they could travel further afield. Despite a meeting with the governor of El Arish, any travel to the Egyptian capital was denied them. Heading into the Gaza Strip, some 600 Palestinians who had been stuck on the Egyptian side for nearly eight months crossed through the breach during the past two days … Palestinians said the police did not prevent them from traveling to El Arish, some 50 kilometers from Rafah on the Gaza-Sinai border. Many had made their way there at great expense, assisted by locals eager to make a profit“. This Haaretz article is here.

Locals eager to make a profit must have been very pleased indeed: The AP reported from Rafah that “When militants blew down the wall along the seven-mile border early Wednesday, tens of thousands — some say hundreds of thousands — streamed into Egypt to replenish supplies and briefly escape the cloistered atmosphere … Rami Abdou, an economic analyst, estimated that Gazans spent $130 million in less than two days, a princely sum for the poverty-stricken territory. ‘Gazans are withdrawing their savings and are borrowing from each other’ to spend in Egypt, he said. Most of the cash flowed into Egypt, but resourceful Gazans found ways to tap into the frenzy. One hot item on the Gaza side of the border was an Egyptian telephone card, better for placing orders with merchants and talking to relatives than relying on the overloaded Gaza phone network”. This AP report is posted here.

Helena Cobban got this interesting information from Mahmoud Zahar in an interview in Gaza in March 2006: “If we push ahead with regard to opening our border with Egypt, we can certainly make it work to the benefit of both sides. You know, in September, right after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza,when our border with Egypt was unsecured– we learned that our people spent $8 million in El-Arish in just ten days, because the prices of everything in Egypt are so much lower than the prices the Israelis impose on us here“. Helena gives a link to her interview with Zahar in today’s post on her blog here.

And, the Economist correspondent in Israel posted these interesting reflctions on his blog: “A few weeks ago left-wing protestors went around Tel Aviv putting up these mock leaflets from the Israeli electric company, which announce power stoppages ‘because the headquarters of an army that harms citizens in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and carries out war crimes is operating in your city’, and inform the residents that ‘for humanitarian reasons the stoppages will not be total, leaving you the decision on whether to distribute the allocated supplies to hospitals, heating systems, sewage or private homes’. It hit home a little harder this week, when large parts of Gaza were plunged into darkness after Israel suspended fuel supplies for the power station. And as I lay in bed this morning summoning up the strength to dash across the frozen floor and switch on the heating, I reflected on the story I wrote yesterday about the outages and realised how extraordinarily little electricity Gaza actually uses. Assuming 1.4m people live in Gaza (some say 1.5m), and that its peak wintertime electricity consumption — ie, when Israel isn’t cutting off the fuel — is 250MW (UN figures, though 240MW has also been reported), then that’s 180W per person, or a couple of light bulbs. If they used all their electricity on standard 2kW electric heaters, there would be one heater per 11 people. Israel’s peak demand, which it has been hitting (Hebrew) thanks to the cold snap in recent days, is around 10,000MW, or 1.5kW per person, over eight times as much as Gaza’s. Remarkably, that’s a higher rate than Britain, which uses something over 62,000MW in winter, or only a little over 1kW per capita (maybe the Brits use more natural gas). In the US, needless to say, the peak rate is well over 2kW per capita”. This post is on the Fugitive Peace blog here.

Haaretz: The seige of Gaza has failed

Haaretz has published an editorial today arguing that “The seige of Gaza has failed“. Here are some excerpts:

“The situation that arose once the Egypt-Gaza border was flung wide open has apparently not yet penetrated Israeli consciousness. While politicians and the media are waiting with bated breath for publication of the Winograd report on the Second Lebanon War, a new situation is taking shape on the Egyptian border that might eventually result in a new investigative committee. The diplomatic and security situation that arose on the Israeli-Egyptian border once the Egypt-Gaza border was flung wide open has apparently not yet penetrated the Israeli consciousness. But it is time to start asking pointed questions about the events of this week … The border with Egypt was breached in a single moment, with no warning. It is impossible to refrain from asking whether any of our decision makers, or any of those who whisper in their ears, foresaw this scenario and prepared for it. When Vice Premier Haim Ramon boasts of the impressive decision-making process that preceded last fall’s military operation in Syria, his words sound bizarre in light of what is happening in the South. While hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are streaming into Egyptian Rafah and Hosni Mubarak is having trouble reestablishing the border, while Hamas has succeeded in ending the siege of Gaza via a well-planned operation and simultaneously won the sympathy of the world, which has forgotten the rain of Qassam rockets on Sderot, Israel is entrenching itself in positions that look outdated. The prime minister speaks about the need to continue the closure on Gaza, and the cabinet voices its ‘disappointment’ with Egypt – as if there were ever any chance that the Egyptians would work to protect Israeli interests along the Philadelphi route instead of thinking first of all of their own interests. The failure of the siege of Gaza, which the government declared only a week ago to be ‘bearing fruit’, and especially the fear that this failure will lead to a conflict with Egypt, requires the government to pull itself together and prove that it has been graced with the ability to solve crises and to lead, not merely to offer endless excuses for its leadership during previous crises. As hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were streaming into Sinai by car and making a mockery of Israel’s policy in Gaza, the prime minister gave a speech at the Herzliya Conference that sounded disconnected from reality. There is little point in extolling the quiet on the northern border when a diplomatic and security crisis for which Israel has no solution is taking place in the South. The Qassam fire is continuing, the policy of sanctions on Gaza has collapsed and Hamas is growing stronger politically, militarily and diplomatically. It is clear to everyone that reestablishing the border along the Philadelphi route will be impossible without its consent…”
The Haaretz editorial is posted here.

This is the second important document needed to understand the current situation at Rafah

This is the second important document needed to understand the current problem at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, which was breached in recent days by up to 700,000 Palestinians on a shopping spree after having been cooped up for months in Gaza (since the Hamas rout of Fatah security forces, actually).

This is the agreement that Condoleeza Rice stayed up all night on her birthday in November 2005 to negotiate. The then-President of the World Bank, James Wolfenson, was also involved (he was the Quartet envoy referred to in this document).

I have not seen any useful analysis of this agreement. Suffice it to say that virtually none of it was ever implemented in practice.

Please note that the memorandum of understanding with the EU about Rafah is not appended, as this document might suggest — and I haven’t found it yet…

Israel-Palestinian Authority agreement on movement and access and Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing

Agreement on Movement and Access

“To promote peaceful economic development and improve the humanitarian situation on the ground, the following agreement has been reached. It represents the commitments of the Government of Israel (GoI) and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Its implementation and further elaboration will be assisted by the Quartet Special Envoy for Disengagement and his staff and/or the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) and his staff.

1. Rafah

The parties have agreed to the attached statement of principles. Rafah will be opened as soon as it is ready to operate at an international standard in accordance with the specifications of this agreement and as soon as the 3rd party is on site, with a target date of November 25.

2. Crossing Points

The parties have agreed that:

The passages will operate continuously. On an urgent basis, Israel will permit the export of all agricultural products from Gaza during this 2005 harvest season.

The new and additional scanner will be installed and fully operational by December 31. At that time, the number of export trucks per day to be processed through Karni will reach 150, and 400 by end-2006. A common management system will be adopted by both parties.

In addition to the number of trucks above, Israel will permit export of agricultural produce from Gaza and will facilitate its speedy exit and onward movement so that quality and freshness can be maintained. Israel will ensure the continued opportunity to export.

To enhance operation, the parties agree that:

— When a new generation of x-ray equipment able to scan trailers as well as containers becomes available it will be used. Once it arrives in the country, testing will also be carried out with the assistance of the Quartet Special Envoy.

— The USSC will ensure continuing consultation, with unresolved implementation issues to be discussed as needed with the parties.

— The PA will ensure that the passages will be protected on the Palestinian side of the border and will train and upgrade the management of all crossings to ensure efficiency and effectiveness. The PA will establish, without delay, a unified system of border management.

— The management system that has been developed for Karni should, with suitable local variations, be adapted to the passages at Erez and Kerem Shalom. Israel also undertakes to put in place similar arrangements as appropriate that will make West Bank passages fully operational as soon as possible. A bilateral committee, with participation as needed of the Quartet Special Envoy and/or the USSC, will develop operational procedures for those passages.

3. Link between Gaza and the West Bank

Israel will allow the passage of convoys to facilitate the movements of goods and persons. Specifically:

— Establish bus convoys by December 15.

— Establish truck convoys by January 15.

— Work out detailed implementation arrangements in a bilateral committee of the GoI and PA with participation as needed from the Quartet team and the USSC.

It is understood that security is a prime and continuing concern for Israel and that appropriate arrangements to ensure security will be adopted.

4. Movement within the West Bank

Consistent with Israel’s security needs, to facilitate movement of people and goods within the West Bank and to minimize disruption to Palestinian lives, the ongoing work between Israel and the U.S. to establish an agreed list of obstacles to movement and develop a plan to reduce them to the maximum extent possible will be accelerated so that the work can be completed by December 31.

5. Gaza Seaport

Construction of a seaport can commence. The GoI will undertake to assure donors that it will not interfere with operation of the port. The parties will establish a U.S.-led tripartite committee to develop security and other relevant arrangements for the port prior to its opening. The 3rd party model to be used at Rafah will provide the basis for this work.

6. Airport

The parties agree on the importance of the airport. Discussions will continue on the issues of security arrangements, construction, and operation.


Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing

To be supplemented prior to opening by agreements on security, customs and 3rd party implementation procedures

General

Rafah will be operated by the Palestinian Authority on its side, and Egypt on its side, according to international standards, in accordance with Palestinian law and subject to the terms of this agreement.

Rafah will be opened as soon as it is ready to operate at an international standard in accordance with the specifications of this agreement and as soon as the 3rd party is on site, with a target date of November 25.

Use of the Rafah crossing will be restricted to Palestinian ID card holders and others by exception in agreed categories with prior notification to the GoI and approval of senior PA leadership.

The PA will notify the GoI 48 hours in advance of the crossing of a person in the excepted categories-diplomats, foreign investors, foreign representatives of recognized international organizations and humanitarian cases.

The GoI will respond within 24 hours with any objections and will include the reasons for the objections;

The PA will notify the GoI of their decision within 24 hours and will include the reasons for their decision;

The 3rd party will ensure the proper procedures are followed and will advise both sides of any information in its possession pertaining to the people applying to cross under these exceptions.

These procedures will remain in place for a period of 12 months, unless the 3rd party delivers a negative evaluation of the PA running the Rafah crossing. This evaluation will be done in close coordination with both sides and will give due consideration to the opinion of both sides.

Rafah will also be used for export of goods to Egypt.

Objective criteria for the inspection of cars will be established by consensus. The criteria are as follows:

Search equipment will be installed, including

— Black lights

— Power tools and a compressor for the tools

— Technology to be agreed, possibly including sonic imagery, gamma detection (full vehicle or hand held), and/or millimetre wave imagery

— Mirrors and bore scope equipment to search hard to reach places

Personnel will be trained to search vehicles and on the use of this equipment by the 3rd party to international standards

Cameras will be installed to monitor the search process

The 3rd party will evaluate the capacity of the PA to inspect cars according to these criteria and to international standards. Once the PA develops the capacity to inspect cars to the satisfaction of the 3rd party, cars will be allowed to pass through Rafah. Until that time, cars will pass through on an exceptional basis, subject to specifications agreed in the security protocol.

Rafah will be the only crossing point between the Gaza Strip and Egypt (with the exception of Kerem Shalom for the agreed period).

The PA will establish clear operating procedures.

Until Rafah is operational, the PA will open Rafah crossing on an ad hoc basis for religious pilgrims, medical patients, and others, in coordination with General Gilad’s office on the Israeli side.

Israel will provide the PA with all information needed to update the Palestinian population registry, including all information on Palestinian ID card holders who are currently outside the country.

A liaison office, led by the 3rd party, will receive real-time video and data feed of the activities at Rafah and will meet regularly to review implementation of this agreement, resolve any disputes arising from this agreement, and perform other tasks specified in this agreement.

Security

The PA will act to prevent the movement of weapons and explosives at the Rafah crossing.

The PA will establish baggage limits for each passenger as part of the procedures. Limits will be the same as currently applied by the GoI; very frequent travellers (suitcase policy) to be agreed.

Travellers, including returning residents, may use the crossing point to bring in personal effects as defined in Rule 1(e) to Heading 7 of the Annex to the prevailing Customs Tariff. Any other personal belongings or other goods shall be cleared at the Kerem Shalom crossing point.

The PA will provide the 3rd party a list of names of the workers at Rafah crossing which will be shared with the Israelis. The PA will take the Israelis concerns into account.

Security services from Israel, PA, the U.S., and Egypt will continue to coordinate on security issues and will participate in the security working group.

On a case by case basis, the PA will consider information on persons of concern provided by the GoI. The PA will consult with the GoI and the 3rd party prior to the PA making a decision to prohibit travel or not. During this consultation, which will not take more than six hours, the person in question will not be permitted to cross.

Customs

GoI and PA will continue to apply the Paris Protocol of 29 April 1994.

Rafah will be operated according to international standards and rules and the Paris Protocol.

GoI and PA agree on widest possible co-operation and information sharing.

GoI and PA will co-operate on training issues.

GoI and PA customs will hold regular meetings to which the GoE will be invited as appropriate.

Kerem Shalom

PA customs officials will clear incoming cargo at Kerem Shalom under the supervision of Israeli customs agents.

Both sides will discuss operating procedures at a later stage.

Operations at Kerem Shalom will provide training and capacity building to PA customs staff.

The 3rd party will review the PA’s customs capacity in 12 months and make a recommendation to both sides for a joint decision regarding future arrangements. In the event of a disagreement, the U.S., in consultation with the GoI, the PA, and the 3rd party, will resolve the issue expeditiously.

Third party

The 3rd party will have the authority to ensure that the PA complies with all applicable rules and regulations concerning the Rafah crossing point and the terms of this agreement. In case of non-compliance the 3rd party has the authority to order the re-examination and reassessment of any passenger, luggage, vehicle or goods. While the request is being processed, the person, luggage, vehicle or cargo in question will not be allowed to leave the premises of the Rafah crossing point.

The 3rd party will assist the PA to build capacity — training, equipment and technical assistance — on border management and customs.

Details of the 3rd party’s role are specified in the attached memorandum of understanding.

The 3rd party will be the European Union”.

The text of this agreement – but minus the supposedly attached memorandum of understanding – is posted
here.

One of the best and most important anaylses of the Israel-Gaza border

Published just after Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza that was completed in September 2005, I found this analysis by Israeli Brigadier-General Michael Herzog, now the secretary in the Israeli Ministry of Defense to Minister Ehud Barak, to be one of the most interesting and important available. At the time it was written, Brig-Gen Herzog was a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Here are some excerpts from Herzog’s analysis, entitled, “A New Reality on the Egypt-Gaza Border (Part II): Analysis of the New Israel-Egypt Agreement“:
“The September 1 Egypt-Israel agreement regarding the deployment of new Egyptian forces along the Egyptian border with Gaza (the Agreed Arrangements) represents a shared Israeli-Egyptian interest in preventing the militarization and radicalization of Gaza following Israeli disengagement. For the first time, Israel is relinquishing its control over part of the external perimeter of the Palestinian areas, handing responsibility to a third party. Success or failure will bear important consequences for both Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Israeli considerations. When Israel decided to leave Gaza, the Israeli defense establishment argued against departure from the Philadelphia Corridor, the narrow stretch of land along Gaza’s Egyptian border where Israel fought the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. The concern was over the militarization of Gaza; without Israeli soldiers guarding the border, it was feared that more and new weapons systems, including antiaircraft missiles and improved rockets, could escalate the danger to Israel. No other party, it was argued, can effectively substitute for Israel’s motivation and capability in curbing smuggling. Ultimately, other considerations prevailed. It was clear that with continued Israeli presence, the Philadelphia Corridor would perpetuate a major source of Israeli-Palestinian friction, destabilizing the postdisengagement situation and endangering the isolated Israeli forces left behind. But perhaps the weightiest consideration was the desire to be able to claim that Israel no longer bears responsibility for Gaza, which required a complete withdrawal of forces. Egypt appeared the best available substitute, since it bears formal responsibility and possesses the best tools to stem the flow of arms from its soil.

Egyptian considerations. Egypt moved to assume a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian scene out of concern lest the void created by Israeli disengagement and the weakness of new Palestinian leadership be filled by destabilizing Islamist forces. Such a development could rebound on Egypt itself, which has its own share of Islamist challenges. Cairo also wanted to prove its indispensability to Israeli-Palestinian conflict management so as to fend off U.S. pressures to democratize. These considerations prompted Egypt to sponsor the Israeli-Palestinian summit at Sharm al-Shaykh and the Palestinian Authority (PA)-Hamas ceasefire in spring 2005, and to begin training Palestinian security forces.

Demilitarization of Sinai. In the course of negotiations, Egyptian negotiators tried to frame the agreement as a first phase to the eventual deployment of several thousand Egyptian troops along the entire Israel-Egypt border south of the Gaza-Egypt border. That demand raised Israeli concerns — and added fuel to a heated public debate over the agreement — lest the Egyptians were to undo the demilitarization of Sinai as established by the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. These concerns were met by defining the agreement as subject to the peace treaty and giving it the appearance of a procedural agreement between militaries. The Agreed Arrangements detail permitted Egyptian forces and equipment, keeping them light in nature; specify prohibitions on anything that may serve military purposes; and involve the existing Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai (MFO) as monitors of implementation. The agreement also grants Israel a veto over any further Egyptian deployment along the joint border. It should be noted that Cairo has always been careful not to fundamentally breach the military annex of the peace treaty.

Crossings. The precedent created by Israel relinquishing its control over part of the PA’s external perimeter, opened the wider question of who should control the PA’s remaining external perimeter — including airspace as well as land and maritime frontiers. In the Agreed Arrangements, Egypt gave de facto recognition to Israeli control of the sea off the Gaza coast. At odds are the PA’s political desire to control its own borders, free from any Israeli presence, and Israel’s security concern to avert a breach that would be used to build the terror infrastructure and fuel its use against Israel. Topping the list of concerns is the Rafah crossing in the middle of the Philadelphia Corridor. When Israel left the corridor, the crossing was closed for a scheduled six-month reconstruction, and the traffic of people and goods across the border was redirected to Israeli-controlled passages south of Philadelphia, including a new one under construction at Kerem Shalom, where Gaza, Israel, and Egypt meet. Israel has indicated that it is willing to contemplate the future use of the reconstructed Rafah crossing for the movement of people in both directions, with international monitoring on the ground and remote photographic monitoring by Israel. Working out a detailed agreement on the inspection of people and goods will prove challenging to the parties concerned. Israel will insist on installing a security regime that can be relied upon not only to monitor terrorists and weapons but also to enforce denials of entry, make arrests, and confiscate prohibited goods. If finalized and implemented, it will be the first time Israel will have allowed a third party to shoulder the security responsibility at a border crossing. [n.b., this remark assumes that Gaza is under Israeli control, otherwise, how could Israel regard Rafah as its border crossing?] An agreed solution for Rafah may help open the way to alternative security regimes at other crossings, including land passages, the Palestinian international airport in Gaza, and a future Palestinian seaport.

What if Egypt fails to live up to its commitments under the agreement? After the Israeli departure on September 12, chaos erupted along the Egypt-Gaza border. Vast quantities of arms were smuggled into Gaza; on September 21 it is still not clear that the border has been effectively resealed, although both Egypt and the PA appear committed to sealing it. From the legal, political, and military points of view, it will be highly problematic for Israel to unilaterally abrogate the agreement with Egypt and return its forces to the Philadelphia Corridor. It is more likely that a porous border will result in a toughened Israeli stance regarding the opening and control of the other border crossings under discussion and making it harder for people and goods to enter Israel from Gaza. Here, the security concerns will be compounded by economic ones�the collapse of the Israel-PA unified customs regime long applied along the PA’s borders will require the establishment of a new independent Israeli customs regime along the Israel-Gaza border”.

This analysis by IDF Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog is posted here.

U.S. State Dept Spokesperson – Egypt should decide how to proceed with Gaza border

Nothing might seem more normal: U.S. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack told journalists at his daily briefing in Washington today that “We are confident that the Egyptians are capable of handling their own sovereign responsibilities along the border…From our perspective, up to the Egyptians to determine how they would like to proceed. They’re a sovereign nation and this is their border with Gaza and ultimately it’s their responsibility”.

Here is a map from the BBC World Service website:

Egypt's border with Gaza - heavily breached along red dotted line

The airport down in the lower corner, labeled “not is use”, has been destroyed once by Israeli forces, rebuilt, then damaged again so badly by Israel that it is now unusable.

Until now, Israel did not like at all the idea that Egypt alone should supervise its border with Gaza. Remember the very recent affair of the Palestinian pilgrims going to Mecca? Then coming back?

The 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel specifies that all of the Sinai, which Israel returned only gradually to Egypt in three stages ending in 1982, should be demilitarized. Only Egyptian “border police” are allowed there, not Egyptian military forces, and only in specified numbers.

Israel insisted on supervising everything that went on at that border, to the extent that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice stayed up all night on her birthday in November 2005 to work out an agreement on the Rafah crossing — it was to be operated by European Union personnel, who would be watched on camera by Israeli security personnel, in real time, not on delayed video. [See later post above]

In 2005, an increase in the number of Egyptian border police was agreed, and now up to 750 are allowed on the border.

Now, these remarks from the U.S. State Department spokesperson on Thursday suggest that the U.S. is open to a renegotiation of that arrangement.

And, Israel’s Debka File (which relies on its alleged good security connections to go “beyond” what the regular media are reporting), said on Thursday that “Early Thursday, Jan. 24, American forces and equipment withdrew from the Multi-force Organization base at Al Gura northeast of al Arish. This force monitors Sinai’s demilitarization under a key clause of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Washington and Cairo are discussing evacuating the entire base and its 400 multinational personnel*. The Egyptian high command was informed that Hamas had begun moving some of its elite units to its new stronghold. [it is not clear what this means — but it certainly does not mean to this MFO base at al-Gura]

*Helena Cobban comments in her blog, here, that: “If true — and I have no reason to doubt that it is — then this is huge. The Multi-National Force and Observers (MFO) was created in 1979 as a US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ force tasked with monitoring implementation of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. If the force is now being redeployed (=withdrawn) from the area bordering Gaza, that is already a major development. But now, in addition, Egypt and Washington are discussing evacuating the El-Gorah base, which is one of the MFO’s two main operating bases? The political crisis in Cairo provoked by yesterday’s bust-out of Palestinians from Gaza into Sinai seems to be much deeper than I had previously thought”.

Debka File continues: “Egyptian forces are not capable of contending with this strength or the hundreds of thousands of Gazan on the move between Gaza and Sinai since Hamas blew up the concrete border fence Tuesday. [n.b., If this is true, it is in part of course because the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty imposes limitations on Egyptian military moves in the Sinai.] Israeli officials continue to treat the crisis as a problem for Egypt to address, rather than emanating from Israel’s failure to pre-empt Hamas’ well-laid plan with timely and appropriate military action. Senior military sources told DEBKAfile that Hamas’ strategic feat is irreversible. By demolishing the 10-km concrete barrier dividing the Gaza Strip from Egyptian Sinai, Hamas has acquired a new stronghold outside Israel’s military reach while their missiles and guns retain access to Israeli targets from the Gaza Strip”. This analysis was posted on 24 January here.

Meanwhile, Israel has issued a travel alert for Israeli tourists in the Sinai to return home immediately, and it has closed Road 10 (is this the Philadelphi Road when it reaches the Gaza Strip?)…

This came after a day in which various Israeli military sources said they wanted Egypt to take over full responsibility for Gaza — Israel wants to give Gaza away to Egypt, to renew the situation as it was between 1948 and 1967.

But Egypt said no, thanks. Or, was it: No Way! Actually, however, it might be able to persuade Egypt…