Monday, January 12, 2009
Egypt’s involvement in maintaining the system that has perpetuated the suffering of Gazans is nothing new. Avi Shlaim, in his book The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2001), wrote that by 1955 “Egyptian authorities [had] kept a quarter of a million Palestinian refugees incarcerated in a tiny strip of territory in Gaza” (p. 84), “around 300,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war who had been demanding the right to be armed and organized into an army in preparation for recovery of their homeland” (pp. 126-27). (It remains one of the most densely populated areas in the world.) More recently, as Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa report in the Daily Star, a Lebanese daily, Cairo is “seen by many [within the Arab societies] as complicit in the Israeli campaign.”
Flash-forwarding to the present, the pressure on the Egyptian state has been very powerful, forcing it to take actions to help — however meagerly — alleviate the situation for civilians. For sixth months, Cairo had enforced the Israel-Hamas ceasefire until it broke down on Nov. 4 with a small Israeli strike. But with the crisis mounting, Egypt was forced to release some of the valve pressure. “Responding to pressure from the Arab world, Egypt ordered the opening of the Rafah crossing to absorb wounded Palestinians from Gaza,” wrote Yoav Stern in Ha’aretz. A few days earlier, immediately following the campaign’s start in late December, “crowds of Gazans breached the border wall with Egypt, … Egyptian forces, some firing in the air, tried to push them back into Gaza and an official said one border guard was killed,” reported an Associated Press dispatch.
One item in sharp focus has been the network of smuggling tunnels upon which Hamas and Gaza itself depends. Ewa Jasiewicz noted that the territory “is being kept alive through the smuggling of food, fuel and medicine through an exploitative industry of over 1000 tunnels” of which some “are reportedly big enough to drive through.” Jonathan Cook, reporting from Nazareth, wrote that Egypt “had little choice but to turn a blind eye” to the smuggling that was aiding Hamas, “despite being profoundly uncomfortable with an Islamic party ruling next door,” that is an inspiration to its own domestic Islamists.
Yossi Klein Halevi, in the New Republic, wrote that one possible “scenario” of Cast Lead — this was before the ground push began — was the return of the entire Gaza Strip to Egypt (“ideally”). Articulating the opinion of much of Western public opinion, Seumas Milne pointed out that Israel’s aim by year’s end (with crucial US backing) was to “overthrow” Hamas and not simply to defang its capacity for violence and terror. At this point, neither Egypt nor any other Arab state will be able to act as “mediator” (Zvi Bar’el and Robert Dreyfuss), and there will be no peace until there is no more Hamas, since any remnant force left will be, like Islamic Jihad, even more extremist and militant.
“For their part,” reflected Stephen Brown, “Muslim governments like Egypt and Jordan will probably make the proper noises denouncing the Israeli attack in order to placate the anti-Israeli protestors on their streets,” namely their populations. “In secret, however, they probably support the destruction of Hamas since it removes a dangerous Iranian ally from their neighbourhood.” Egypt and Jordan also happen to be the only surrounding countries to hold peace treaties with the Jewish state. Put another way, the threat of the so-called Shi’ite crescent was put forth by Daniel Levy, who wrote that Cairo “naturally sees the Hamas issue first through its own domestic prism of concern at the growth” of the Muslim Brotherhood — of which Hamas is its offshoot — the leading opposition group in Egypt. Concurring, Sara Roy wrote that one aim of the Israeli attack is to attempt to “foist Gaza onto Egypt” once and for all. Ghassan Khatib, “a Palestinian analyst,” echoing Roy, believed one “strategic aim” of Israel is “making Gaza Egypt’s responsibility,” as quoted by Cook. And according to Daniel Pipes, “[Hosni] Mubarak notwithstanding, Egyptians overwhelmingly want a strong tie to Gaza” — certainly plausible, since Egypt occupied the area until 1967.
In essence, according to Benny Morris, the root problem is that the area under assault is “populated by 1.5 million impoverished, desperate Palestinians who are ruled by a fanatic regime and are tightly hemmed in by fences and by border crossings controlled by Israel and Egypt.” Yigal Walt avers that Egypt maintained most of the closings. Veteran Israeli activist Uri Avnery, on January 2, alleged that “the only opening to the word that is not dominated by Israel [in the Strip] is the border with Egypt” at Rafah, wherein the “Egyptian army has blocked the only way for food and medicines to enter, while surgeons operate on the wounded without anesthetics.” As the ground operation began, Ethan Bronner speculated that “any potential truce deal would probably include an increase in commercial traffic from and Egypt into Gaza, which is Hamas’s central demand”; the dilemma, therefore, is that developing “the Gaza economy under [the rule of] Hamas,” according to “Israeli leaders,” would “build up Hamas,” but otherwise “1.5 million Gazans” would continue “living in despair” — for their crime of voting the wrong party to power in January 2006. Also in the New York Times, reporter Steven Lee Myers observed that a “victory for Israel would make it easier for Egypt” and other so-called moderate governments “to declare common cause against Islamic militancy and its main sponsor … Iran.”
The war has caused several fissures and splits to develop: between the Arab states and their populations, between factions in a steadily disintegrating Palestinian polity (and society), and between electorally competing camps in Israel itself. Roi Ben-Yehuda quoted “columnist Mona Eltahawy,” who in “Egypt’s Al Masry Al Youm and Qatar’s Al Arab … lambast[ed] Hamas and the Arab world for their self-destructive addiction to Israel” by saying that Gazans “are victims equally of Hamas and Israel.” As the fight raged on in the streets, the UN stridently warned of a worsening “humanitarian crisis” (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a centrist candidate for Prime Minister next month, is on the record for claiming that no such crisis exists), though “Some medical supplies, ambulances and generators … got into Gaza from Egypt through the Rafah border crossing,” according to John Holmes, the “humanitarian chief.” On January 6, Yaakov Katz, in the Jerusalem Post, cited the work of Bezalel Treiber of the Defense Ministry in “opening … a humanitarian corridor from Gaza City to Kerem Shalom — located near the Egyptian border” but, in actuality, much further away than Rafah is to Egypt.
So far, Hamas has “preferred to endure a punishing US-led boycott, a devastating Israeli-Egyptian siege and increasingly bloody Israeli incursions rather than capitulate to US and European demands … that it accept the various strictures of the defunct 1993 Oslo agreement and the stillborn 2003 ‘road map,’” according to Mouin Rabbani. They have made the choice of sacrificing their own people for their ideo-theology. Meanwhile, US-Israeli-Egyptian cooperation against the regime in Gaza has led to a grievous strategic and moral defeat of Israeli deterrence power, horrific deprivation for the people with the misfortune to live in Gaza, and a propaganda victory for their ostensible leaders.