Saturday, January 10, 2009

Egypt Moves Centerstage

With the exception of Jordan, no Arab country has more at stake in Gaza than Egypt, the only Arab nation to share a border with Gaza. Arabs, increasingly angry about the ongoing violence and frustrated by Arab government inability to come to the aid of the Palestinians, are focusing attention on Egypt's refusal to fully open the Rafah border crossing, Gaza's only gateway to the outside world that does not go through Israel. Tens of thousands of Egyptians on Friday poured into the streets alongside their brethren across the Arab world and elsewhere to vent their anger and frustration, in many cases targeting Egyptian embassies.

(As an aside, the war of words between Israel and the Arabs at times seems surreal in its ability to deny reality. David Pollack, a senior fellow focusing on political dynamics in the Middle East at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy in an analysis released on Friday asserts that "only a handful of major street protests have occurred, and almost no tangible support for Hamas has materialized." Coming from the institute that degree of denial – one only needs to switch on television news to see the masses in the streets – is worrisome given the fact that the institute is an important player in shaping US Middle East policy. Executives and associates of the institute will serve as senior officials in the incoming Obama administration's Middle East team and have served in past administrations, Republican and Democratic.)

What happens at the Rafah crossing will in part make or break the sustainability of any ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. To call a halt to the fighting, Israel wants a viable mechanism that would close down what is left of the underground tunnels that constitute Gaza's sole supply line. Those tunnels serve(d) to break the Israeli siege and bring in vital basic supplies like food and medicine; they were also used by Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups to bring in arms and other military materials. Any mechanism will involve an increased Egyptian role, all the more so if international forces are stationed on the Egyptian side of the border. Hamas has said it would allow international monitors to operate from the Palestinian side of the divide but will not accept an international force in Palestine., Egypt too is reluctant to allow an international force to operate from its territory although less firmly opposed than Hamas.. Instead, it wants to revive the 2005 agreement on movement and access, under which EU monitors oversaw the passage of people through the Rafah crossing and vehicles through Kerem Shalom, a deal that fell through when Hamas came to power.

Egypt's role in Gaza could become even more enhanced if the hopes of some Israeli leaders and politicians that the Israeli offensive will lead to regime change in Gaza were realized. That seems a far-fetched goal as the Israeli offensive enters into its third week. Most analysts assume the war is likely to end before US President-elect Barack Obama takes office on Jan. 20. A real defeat of Hamas would mean that Israel would have to launch its third phase of the offensive – involving a virtual re-occupation of Gaza by Israeli troops moving into the centers the Strip's cities and towns -- and is able of delivering a fatal blow to Hamas within days. Israel on Saturday showered Gaza with leaflets advising residents that it was about to intensify the fighting by launching its planned third phase of the war. "Strip residents: Two days ago, the IDF dropped leaflets in Rafah, warning residents and instructing them to leave their homes for their safety. As Rafah residents complied with IDF instructions, civilians not involved in the fighting were spared any harm. In the near future, the IDF will continue to attack tunnels, arms caches, and terror activities with greater intensity all across the Strip. For your safety and the safety of your families, you are required to refrain from staying near terror elements or sites where weapons are being stored," the leaflet read.

Speaking in an interview with Sir David Frost on Al Jazeera's Frost over the World, Daniel Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, said: "I think Egypt will have a major role in any future regime" in Gaza. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is determined to thwart any Israeli attempt to foist Gaza on Egypt, a move that could provoke a true explosion of public anger. Even before the current pro-Palestinian demonstrations, protests against the government were becoming a fixture of daily life in the country. While most protests are small and focus on local grievances, some labor actions forced the government to make concessions.

Nonetheless, the absence of a swift Israeli victory too brings Egypt's role in achieving an end to the war to the forefront. Egypt has put forward a ceasefire proposal bolstered by the UN Security Council's call for an immediate ceasefire. Neither Israel nor Hamas is implementing the UN call or has accepted the Egyptian proposal, but both have agreed to talk to the Egyptians about it. Egypt is also seeking to blow new life into talks between Hamas and Fatah in a bid to end the debilitating divisions among the Palestinians. Hamas leaders were in Egypt on Friday and Saturday to discuss the Egyptian efforts. "The situation in Gaza represents a test for the Egyptian leadership and its ability to influence any part of the Middle East, and currently it seems that it is losing its soft powers," Muhammed Hassanein Heikal, a confident of the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and one of the Arab world's most prominent journalists, told Al Jazeera

Israel and Egypt refuse to fully open the Rafah border unless it is controlled by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian National Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, a demand Hamas has so far rejected. The Times reported Saturday that diplomats at the United Nations were looking as part of the Egyptian plan at carving out "a triangle at the southern end of Gaza, including the Rafah crossing to Egypt and the Kerem Shalom crossing to Israel, to be policed by Turkish and French military monitors to stop arms smuggling into Gaza. The zone would nominally be controlled by the authority, the internationally recognized Government. Such a plan would allow the crossings to reopen for the first time since Hamas seized power in Gaza in June 2007." Abbas was in Cairo on Saturday for talks with Mubarak. "What Mubarak appears to want now is a ceasefire that avoids increasing Egyptian responsibility for Gaza and offers Hamas minimal concessions. Egyptian officials denied an Israeli newspaper report that Mubarak told European Union officials during a private meeting Monday that 'Hamas must not be allowed to win in Gaza,' but the comment might well reflect his thinking," says Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin, in an article in The National Interest.

Finding common ground between Israel, Egypt and Hamas on arrangements at the Rafah crossing is no mean fete. Israel demands closure of hundreds of tunnels, which it says are Hamas' arms highway. Egypt claims that most weapons enter Gaza from the sea, although it admits that it has failed even with recent help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to close the tunnels. While rejecting an international force, it has agreed to accept international help to install technical measures or physical barriers on the Egyptian side of the border. Hamas wants the free flow of goods to and from Gaza through Rafah restored – a move that would help it claim victory in foiling Israel's military objectives in the war. Its position may have been strengthened by the international outcry at the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli offensive. Egypt rejects the Hamas demand because it fears that a fully open Rafah crossing would allow Palestinians to flee the Strip in a mass exodus. An unidentified Egyptian official told Al-Hayat on Tuesday that Mubarak has resisted Arab and Palestinian pressure to open the crossing because he expects it would lead to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flooding into Sinai and the inevitable reestablishment of semi-permanent refugee camps.

Complicating implementation of the Security Council ceasefire resolution is the fact that a cessation of hostilities at this moment would mean there is no clear victor. Hamas can claim survival as a victory albeit at a heavy price for the Palestinians. Continued human agony in Gaza still has some potential to score public relations points against Israel. Full opening of the crossings into Gaza would cement Hamas's claim to victory. The flip side of that coin is true for Israel. It wants to ensure that Hamas victory claims are undermined and that Hamas' capacity to fire rockets into Israel is destroyed, in part by cutting off its supply lines. Time will tell the degree to which that is possible. If Egyptian claims that Hamas gets its supplies by sea are true, there is no reason to believe that Israel and others would succeed where they haven't until now. In addition, closing down the tunnels is proving easier said than done. Also, most of Hamas' rockets are home made. Its ability to continue producing them in an environment in which the flow of goods into Gaza is even more controlled remains untested, "The (ongoing) violence is just to mark time because there's an incapacity to reach a solution and the solution is very complex. All the parties have to take into account what a ceasefire will mean for them," Chatam House fellow Nadim Shehadi told The National. Egypt too has a stake on who emerges as the perceived victor from the Gaza war. A victory by Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, would strengthen the brotherhood in Egypt, where it constitutes Mubarak's main opposition and enjoys significant popularity.

On Thursday, the brotherhood issued a detailed critique of Mubarak’s ceasefire initiative. It called on him to break relations with Israel and accused him of colluding with the United States. Egyptian opposition groups - Islamist, leftist and liberal – have found a common ground in attacking Mubarak for failing to exert leadership in the region and to respect human and civil rights at home. For Mubarak, the challenge is to manage the crisis without taking deeply unpopular steps that would force him to step up repression and crack down at home.

No comments:

Post a Comment