Egyptian FM Nabil ElAraby says unity was needed for Palestinian state recognition

According to a report in the Jerusalem Post here about the surprise announcement on Wednesday of a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah [for more information, see our post on our sister blog, here], “Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby said the agreement was aimed at paving the way for the Palestinians to seek UN recognition in September of an independent state on the 1967 lines. ‘Palestinian divisions can’t continue while efforts are being made to ensure recognition of a Palestinian state’, Elaraby said, adding that he planned to visit Ramallah soon for talks with Palestinian Authority officials on this and other matters”.

Nabil ElAraby’s appointment as Egypt’s new post-Mubarak Foreign Minister is one of the most interesting developments in the whole Arab Spring.

The Guardian newspaper published an article this week by Jack Schenker that argued that even though Egypt was putatively handling reconciliation negotiations between Israel and Hamas for years, “Israel and Washington had no genuine desire to see a unified Palestinian government, and Egypt’s thinking followed suit – until, that is, nationwide protests erupted against the regime in late January, and Suleiman was promoted to vice-president in a failed attempt to shore up Mubarak’s position. Given the country’s internal chaos, few expected his replacement, Murad Muwafi, to devote much energy to the issue of Palestinian factionalism, but in fact Muwafi took the issue seriously – so seriously, in fact, that no fewer than five Israeli delegations were dispatched to his offices in the space of a few weeks in an effort to ward off any unity deal. Muwafi’s stance was shaped partly by the ascendancy of the career diplomat Nabil el-Arabi to the position of foreign minister in Egypt’s interim government. Arabi had a reputation for saying some decidedly undiplomatic things regarding Egypt’s close alliance with Israel under presidents Mubarak and Sadat, and as part of an internal battle to wrest control of some policy issues away from the secret services – where they had drifted under Mubarak – and back under the auspices of the foreign ministry, he began making loud and relatively critical noises about Israel, marking an important shift in rhetoric. ‘It is time to stop managing the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, it’s time to end the conflict” he said earlier this month. Egypt’s foreign minister will now travel to Amman and Ramallah next month to continue promoting the deal and, although few will admit it publicly, both Hamas and Fatah are optimistic that the new Egyptian government will do a better job of resisting Israeli pressure to scupper the agreement than Suleiman and Mubarak would have managed”. This article is published here.

Twenty-four hours after the announcement of the reconciliation agreement, ElAraby said in an interview with Al-Jazeera on Thursday that “The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza will open on a permanent basis within seven to ten days … He said during the interview that steps would be taken in order to alleviate the ‘suffering of the Palestinian people’.” These remarks to Al-Jazeera were published in the Jerusalem Post here.

The Israeli Project (TIP) sent out an email on Friday worrying that “Egypt plans to open its border with Gaza on a permanent basis, allowing in people and goods through Rafah without supervision by Israeli authorities, Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi said Friday”. It cites as its reference a report in Haaretz by correspondent Avi Issacharoff published here — which said that this would be a violation of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, finally hammered out in November 2005, two months after Ariel Sharon’s unilateral “disengagement”, which set up a force of EU monitoring personnel known as EUBAM, who were also under Israeli supervision.

The agreement, however, was barely implemented because of constant Israeli closures of the Rafah crossing [mostly, Israel did this by telling the EUBAM people to stay home].

However, the Israel Project email noted that “Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Menha Barkhoum said details of the Rafah opening were still being hammered out but that ‘We’ll open the crossing point for individuals in a continuous way’.”

Here is a graphic of the Gaza Strip sent along with the email from The Israel Project:
graphic by The Israel Project

The straight line in the lower left-hand corner of the Gaza Strip is the twice-destroyed-by-Israeli-bombing Yasser Arafat International Airport. The Kerem Shalom crossing which Israel has always preferred, despite all Palestinian objections, is just over border at the point where Gaza, the Israeli Negev desert, and the Egyptian Sinai all meet.

It is from Kerem Shalom that the Israeli military and security agencies carried out, by real time closed-circuit TV or video monitoring, their supervision of all activities at the Rafah crossing, including their monitoring of EUBAM…

Under the 2005 Agreement, however, the Rafah crossing has been closed far, far more than it was ever open…

IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit was seized very near Kerem Shalom in a cross-border raid by Palestinian militants in June 2006, shortly after a similar operation by Hizballah along the Israeli-Lebanese border to the north which sparked the summer 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon (which is called, in Israel, the Second Lebanese War).

Shalit has been held in captivity, presumably in Gaza, since then — even during the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009.

UPDATE: There was a report in the London-based Arabic-language Al-Hayat paper on Saturday, picked up by correspondent Avi Issacharoff in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz here, that “Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabri is in Egypt for talks with current Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate Murad Muwafi about abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, London-based Arab daily Al-Hayat reported on Saturday. According to the report, Jabri has been in Egypt for several days, during which he held talks with Muwafi about the stalled negotiations between Israel and the Hamas for Shalit’s release … Negotiations have stalled numerous times. Hamas last year accused Israel of changing its stance over points to which it had already agreed. Hamas sources have said that Israel is delaying the completion of the Shalit deal by refusing to release 50 Hamas officials it holds in its jails. Speaking to Israel Radio, a top Hamas official refused to comment on the report”.

The Israeli human rights organization GISHA, which has led a sustained challenge in the Israeli court system to the Israeli military-administered sanctions against Gaza, commented Friday that “Since Israel closed Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters and all but closed Erez Crossing to Palestinians, Rafah Crossing has become the gateway to the outside world for 1.5 million Palestinian residents of Gaza. Crossing via Erez (on the border between Gaza and Israel) is limited to ‘extraordinary humanitarian cases, especially urgent medical cases’, preventing Palestinians from traveling between Gaza and the West Bank.   Rafah was closed following the capture of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006 and remained mostly closed until June 2010, when Egypt opened it in the wake of the flotilla incident. Between June 2010 and January 2011, 19,000 people per month on average crossed Rafah in both directions, 47% of the number of people who crossed monthly in the first half of 2006.   Today, passage through Rafah is limited to holders of foreign citizenship or residence, holders of visas (including students studying abroad) and those seeking medical attention or study in Egypt. Crossing for Palestinians is limited to those listed in the Israeli-controlled population registry. Since the regime change in Egypt, the number of people permitted to leave Gaza via Rafah has been limited to 300 per day. The crossing is currently open five days per week. Since the 2005 ‘disengagement’, goods have not been permitted to pass via Rafah, except for humanitarian assistance which Egypt occasionally permits through Rafah“.

GISHA’s Executive Director. Attorney Sari Bashi added, in the response to news that Egypt will open the Rafah crossing, that “Gisha expresses hope that Egypt will expand the ability of Gaza residents to travel abroad via Rafah Crossing, which has become Gaza’s gateway to the world, in light of Israel’s closure of Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters and restrictions on travel via Erez Crossing.  Gisha notes the need also to permit passage of people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank, recognized by Israel as a single territorial unit whose integrity is the basis for a two-state solution.   Gisha notes that since June 2007, Israel has prevented Gaza residents from transferring goods for sale to Israel or the West Bank, as part of a policy to separate Gaza from the West Bank. Security concerns cannot explain the ban, as Gaza residents are permitted to sell limited quantities of agricultural products to Europe – via Israel and Israeli security checks. Gaza, Israel and the West Bank are part of a single customs envelope, in which free trade is to take place and in which customs regulations are to be uniform.  Any arrangement for permitting goods to cross via Rafah should consider the need to maintain the unity of the Palestinian economy, existing in Gaza and the West Bank”.

UPDATE TWO: Haaretz reported on Saturday here that “Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces General Sami Anan warned Israel against interfering with Egypt’s plan to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza on a permanent basis, saying it was not a matter of Israel’s concern, [Israeli] Army Radio reported on Saturday”.

According to a report in Ahramonine, Anan did this on his Facebook page. Ahram online reported: “Israel does not have the right to interfere in Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah border crossing, says Sami Annan, the chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces. ‘Israel does not have the right to interfere in Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah border. This is an Egyptian-Palestinian issue’, wrote Anan on his Facebook page. Anan also thanked the Egyptian intelligence for the role it played in the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas”. This is posted here.

UPDATE THREE: The Wall Street Journal (online) has reported here that Israel is vexed by these Egyptian moves: “Israeli officials said they were seeking to clarify Mr. Al Araby’s remarks with Egypt. Mindful of the instability, government officials have been reluctant to openly criticize the new government”…

The WSJ report noted that “In January 2008, tens of thousands of Palestinians broke down the border fence at Rafah and crossed into Egypt to buy goods kept out by the Israeli siege, but Egypt eventually resealed the border”,  but that “In recent years, Egypt and Israel have cooperated to fight the tunnel trade.  And at the end of 2009, Egypt even began building an underground wall [ n.b.- with U.S. help] to block the subterranean commerce.   Egypt has kept the border closed out of concern that an open border could saddle Cairo with responsibility for security in Gaza … Last year Cairo lengthened the hours of the border crossing in response to international pressure after Israel’s deadly interception of a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists”.

But, as GISHA complained, the extended opening hours were not nearly enough.

Bashi later told Time Magazine’s Karl Vick “If Egypt wanted to be more generous, they’d go back to what the situation was in 2005 and 2006”. Vick noted that “In those years, any Palestinian with an Israeli-approved ID could come and go through Rafah. But, Bashi says, ‘we don’t know what the Egyptians have in mind’.” This is posted here.

The WSJ article quoted an Israeli official as saying: “In the past, despite the effort of the government of Egypt to prevent it happening, Hamas was able to build in Gaza a formidable military terrorist machine”…

According to the WSJ report, a senior Israeli official said on Friday: “We are troubled by recent developments in Egypt … These developments can affect Israel’s national security at a strategic level”.

Reuters on Rice visit next week

Reuters wrote yesterday about the upcoming visit of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to the region that: “Three months ago, Israelis and Palestinians pledged at a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, that they would seek a deal by the end of the Bush administration in January 2009. The window is fast narrowing and diplomats and experts note talk has become more vague, with suggestions of only a framework agreement by year-end, or a so-called ‘shelf agreement’ that could be dusted off by the next president. But a senior U.S. official said it was too soon to write off prospects of a deal and Rice’s goal on this trip would be to keep talks moving between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and pro-Western Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas … Rice is expected to lean on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to concede to Abbas’s demand to ease checkpoints in the West Bank and give Abbas’s forces more responsibility. But officials said she would make clear U.S. support for Israel’s right to defend itself … Rice’s first stop is due to be Cairo on Tuesday where she wants answers over how Egypt will secure its border with Gaza after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians breached it last month to buy goods unavailable due to an Israeli blockade This Reuters report is here.

There have been some hints, just slight ones, that there might be some light between Rice’s position and Israel’s, concerning the re-opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, but that is not totally clear.

It was Rice herself who stayed up all night in November 2005 — it was even her birthday, she said — to get an agreement on opening this crossing, following Israel’s unilateral September 2005 “Disengagement” from Gaza. The formula had Palestinians running the show on their side of the crossing — but under Israeli real-time “supervision” via video link from some control booth near the Kerem Shalom crossing, perhaps some 15-20 minutes real travel time away.

Now, of course, there is a Palestinian split — and Hamas in Gaza wants to be a part of this deal. The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, particularly President Mahmoud Abbas, objects, though Hamas says it would not mind some sort of “power-sharing” arrangement. What Hamas objects to is any Israeli role in a re-opened Rafah.

Egypt’s Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, who has been very involved — and who would have to sign on to any revised deal — just cancelled a proposed trip to Israel next week to discuss this, and the release of IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was seized from near the Kerem Shalom crossing in June 2006, and who is still being held somewhere in Gaza. Israeli officials told Israeli newspapers that they believed Suleiman had cancelled his trip because of all the build-up toward an all-out Israeli re-invasion of Gaza.

Suleiman will, however, participate in a meeting with Rice in Egypt (Tuesday?)…

While the U.S. is firmly condemnatory of the Palestinian “projectile” attacks (Qassams, Katyushas, and mortars), they have also been warning Israel to consider carefully the consequences of its actions, and to keep the humanitarian situation in Gaza in mind.

I wonder if, perhaps, Rice herself might cancel her visit to Jerusalem (and Ramallah), if the present Israeli-Gaza fighting continues and escalates.

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.

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.

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.