Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Egypt & Gaza: A Troubled History

By Mariam Ghorbannejad

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza on January 18th could not have come a day too soon. A 22-day campaign has witnessed the death of 1,250 Palestinians, an injury count reaching 5,500 and the killing of 13 Israelis. A humanitarian catastrophe has been halted.

In his address, Olmert said that Israel had achieved its targets; namely that Hamas’ military capabilities and infrastructure had been reduced and many of the tunnels used to transfer weapons into the coastal area had been destroyed.

A matter that in all probability helped bring about an end to the fighting was an agreement signed between Israel and its greatest ally, the United States the previous day. In the Memorandum of Understanding the American government pledged to take the necessary steps, alongside other members of the international community, to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Without such an assurance, the Israeli operation could have continued into a fourth week.

The role of the Egyptians in securing peace in Gaza should not, however, be overlooked. An international conference on Gaza co-chaired by President Hosni Mubarak and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh pressed parties concerned to consolidate the fragile ceasefire.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in attendance, as was Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Earlier on Sunday, Hamas had agreed to a week-long ceasefire with Israel to allow it to withdraw its troops from Gaza. Telling, exiled deputy chief of the Islamic Resistance Movement Moussa Abou Marzouk had declared that the Palestinians: “are ready to cooperate with any efforts, especially those of the Egyptians, Turks, Syrians and Qataris, to reach an agreement that meets our known demands, which are a permanent lift of the blockade and the opening of all the crossing points, including the Rafah crossing.”

Egypt’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has often been at odds with other Arab countries. President Hosni Mubarak had claimed that Hamas invited attacks from Israel on the Gaza Strip when they failed to renew the six-month long ceasefire (brokered by Egypt) that expired in December 2008. This remark did not go down well with Arab leaders like President Bashar Assad of Syria who is staunchly against the Israeli military campaign. Another point of contention is Egypt’s support for Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which has also angered its own population.

Gaza provides a policy challenge for the Egyptians. Geographically, it is the only Middle East country besides Israel to share a border with the Gaza Strip, to the north-east. Its history of control of the Palestinian enclave, which it seized after Israel declared independence in 1948, staying until 1967, means that it is reluctant to be seen to be interfering in Palestinian affairs.

The signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1979 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in exchange for Israeli forces withdrawing from Sinai drew widespread criticism in the Arab world. Relations have therefore been strained with Arab countries on the Palestinian issue ever since.

It could be argued that Egypt’s role in bringing about the ceasefire in the latest Gaza offensive has been pivotal. Israel is unwilling for direct talks with Hamas and the US Department of State has already branded the organisation ‘terrorist’ so a go-between who could engage with all parties was needed. Enter Egypt; one of the only Arab nations who are on friendly terms with Israel (next to Jordan), and a solution to end the fighting was forthcoming. Whether this ceasefire holds is yet to be determined.

What does Egypt have to gain by adhering to the Israeli blockade of Gaza?

Firstly and perhaps most importantly for the government, allowing Rafah to comply with the blockade effectively forces Israel into assuming humanitarian responsibility for the people of Gaza.

If Rafah were to be opened, Egypt would be burdened with an influx of Palestinians seeking work and needing housing, putting a strain on Egyptian finances. Israel could hold Egypt to account for any rocket attacks from Gaza. This would push the country into policing the porous border, a task fraught with difficulty. Stability in the region could be threatened by such a move.

One of the biggest fears of the Egyptian government is the close link that Hamas has with its own Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamic Resistance Movement look to the banned but tolerated opposition group in Cairo as their mentor. Similarly, the institutions of the Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah, are based on those of the Egyptian government. A caveat for the reopening of the crossing is that Hamas recognize the authority of the Palestinian Authority. Internal security threats in Egypt could be heightened if Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood collaborate.

Should the blockade be lifted, the Egyptian state risks the $1.4 billion-a-year aid package it receives from America. The US has put pressure on Egypt to maintain the blockade in the hope of causing submission of Hamas.

Gaza and Egypt’s history is intertwined and their future is likely to be shared. Palestinians, who come together in a unity government, will ultimately be in the strongest position to negotiate with Israel in realising a viable Palestinian state. Should this occur, Egypt’s role in patrolling the Gaza border will diminish along with the need for Palestinian resistance.

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