Crises in the Middle East have a tendency to exhibit a peculiar pattern. While they appear to be limited in scope, they almost invariably reveal a broader dimension, which is what makes such crises potentially so destabilizing. The situation created by Hamas’ dramatic breach of the border between Egypt and Gaza, and the ensuing influx of Palestinians into Sinai, presents a clear example of this pattern. Far from being a simple border issue, it has the potential to escalate in a manner that can entangle the security interests of regional actors, and further erode the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Beyond the immediate task of maintaining order in the eastern Sinai after the entry of 700,000 Palestinians, the situation presented Egypt with two immediate challenges. First, Egypt could not ignore the humanitarian plight of Gaza’s population that was precipitated by Israel’s collective punishment, a policy that was not only illegal, but morally and politically untenable. Egypt therefore allowed unarmed Gazans to stock up on basic necessities in the Sinai border towns in order to alleviate what was clearly becoming a humanitarian crisis. Secondly, Egypt, adamant about preserving the security and sanctity of its own border, was faced with the challenge of reaching a new arrangement governing the border with the agreement, or at the very least acquiescence, of Israel, the PA, the European Union and Hamas, at a time when the first three parties would not collaborate with the latter. In meeting these challenges, Egypt insisted that the resolution of the crisis not embolden Palestinian or Israeli rejectionists of the two state solution.
This was the backdrop to Egypt’s position on resolving the border question, and its steadfast position of redeploying officials from the PA on the Gaza side of the border, together with on site monitoring by the EU. Such an arrangement would provide the transparency necessary for maintaining an open border, while accommodating the security interests of all sides including Israel.
It is important to note, however, that the roots of the present predicament in Gaza can be traced back to a series of policies that have sought to address these issues through disengagement or coercion, which have in fact produced the opposite of their intended result. Rather than negotiate its withdrawal from Gaza with the PA, Israel’s ‘unilateral’ disengagement in September 2005 not only weakened Prime Minister Abbas but also gave credence to Hamas’ claim that Israel was forced to evacuate under fire. The continued stalemate on the peace process, together with the relentless settlement expansion in the occupied territories, only served to legitimize Hamas’ claim of the futility of negotiation, paving the way for their victory over Fatah in the 2006 Parliamentary elections. Finally, rather than weaken Hamas, the siege imposed on Gaza in the wake of Hamas’ takeover was used to further validate and provide impetus for its discourse of resistance, which thrives on conflict and the absence of credible movement towards peace.
This is precisely why a strategy that only seeks to inflict ever greater doses of pain serves to strengthen the naysayers on both sides. Rather, the focus should be on creating a situation that challenges the rejectionists politically. Allowing the PA to assume control of the border crossings between Gaza and Israel would be a first step. This could be coupled with a serious effort to achieve a ceasefire that would end the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, and Israeli targeting of Palestinians, which would deescalate what is becoming a rapidly deteriorating situation. However, the ultimate challenge to all rejectionists, including Hamas, would be serious and expeditious permanent settlement negotiations between Olmert and Abbas, which explains Hamas’ vehement opposition to such a process.
Having failed to dislodge Hamas, a reimposition of the siege by Israel would only further entrench its hold on Gaza, particularly in the absence of serious prospects for successful permanent status negotiations with the PA. A large scale military operation in Gaza would only have the same effect, even if it would weaken Hamas militarily in the short term. Equally troubling, however, is the notion that Israel can somehow disengage completely from Gaza, cutting off humanitarian supplies and severing its link with the West Bank, thus implicitly transferring responsibility for the strip to Egypt. Proponents of this option fail to recognize that this is precisely what the rejectionists want. Since its electoral victory in 2006, Hamas has been calling for removing Gaza from the customs envelope with Israel that was negotiated in 1994 as an integral component of the Oslo process, in favor of economic linkage with Egypt, a step that would undermine the already fragile basis for a two-state solution. Hamas yearns to reaffirm that the liberation of Palestinian land from Israeli occupation was achieved by its own hand, and not by Fatah. Conversely, Israel’s rejectionists would eagerly point to the failure of disengagement to bring peace, citing every rocket attack against Israel as justification for their position that a permanent settlement will not provide for enhanced security.
The stakes in Gaza are indeed high. The current crisis is but a manifestation of a broader problem – the receding horizon of a negotiated two state solution. Ignoring the core of the issue for the sake of expediency will have serious ramifications not only for the cause of peace, but for regional stability. This is why it calls for sensitivity, caution, and foresight on the part of all the parties involved.
Nabil Fahmy is Egypt’s Ambassador to the United States.
By Nabil Fahmy