Courtesy: "Wall Street Journal", 30 April 2011
Egypt Policy Toward Gaza, Hamas Vexes Israel
By JOSHUA MITNICK (Tel Aviv), MATT BRADLEY (Cairo), JAY SOLOMON (Washington)Egypt's shifting foreign policy, including its decision to open its border with the Gaza Strip, embrace Hamas and upgrade relations with Iran, has roiled Israel, which says the moves pose new security threats and risks undermining the two countries' peace.
"We are troubled by recent developments in Egypt,'' said a senior Israeli official on Friday. "These developments can affect Israel's national security at a strategic level."
The reaction underscores a widening rift between the two neighbors amid the wave of Arab popular unrest that led to the February resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who worked with Israel to contain Hamas, an Islamist militant group, through a blockade of the coastal strip. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al Araby said Thursday in an interview with al-Jazeera that Cairo plans to open up the Rafah border crossing at Gaza within 10 days. Mr. al Araby's remarks, which were confirmed Friday by Egypt's foreign ministry, raised expectations that the border, closed to all but a few Gazans, will be opened to all and eventually for commercial trade.
Israel fears the opening will ease the flow of weapons into the Gaza Strip while allowing fluid access to militants bent on attacking Israel.
The Obama administration sought on Friday to play down Egypt's moves on Gaza and to promote a unity government between Hamas and Fatah.
Jacob Sullivan, director of planning and policy at the State Department, argued that there had always been movement of people and quantities of humanitarian goods across the border. He noted that Egypt had long promoted a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and underscored that the Palestinian leadership was still in place and that U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority would continue.
Still, Mr. Sullivan said that the formation of a new government would prompt the U.S. to review the new Palestinian government's standing and review its assistance.
Privately, U.S. and European officials acknowledged in recent days that the decisions in Cairo could significantly undercut U.S. efforts to jump-start the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The Egyptian border policy is seen by Israeli analysts as part of the new government's efforts to respond to a public opinion sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and a desire to break with Mr. Mubarak's policy of cooperation with Israel.
Cairo wants to "relieve the Palestinians of their daily suffering,'' Mr. al Araby said.
On Wednesday, Cairo brokered a preliminary accord ending a four-year feud between the main Palestinian factions—Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which is dominated by Fatah. The accord proposes an interim power-sharing government until elections can be held within a year. Many details still aren't finalized.
Egypt's abrupt move adds to Israel's worries that Egypt will drift toward Iran's orbit of influence. Mr. al Araby said last month that he was turning a "new page" with Iran and may soon offer full diplomatic relations to the Islamic republic after more than 30 years without high-level official contact.
Egypt's ruling military council reaffirmed its commitment to the 1979 Israeli-Egypt peace treaty shortly after it assumed power from Mr. Mubarak. Soon after, the foreign ministry began adopting new policies.
While reconciliation with the authority could ease Hamas's political isolation, a more open border would enable Gaza to break through the air, land and sea blockade imposed by Israel. A signing ceremony is expected in Cairo this week, and will include Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. Menha Bakhoum, an Egyptian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said "by next week we'll bring all the factions to Cairo and we'll sign something and there will be a big ceremony."
Taher Nunu, a Hamas government spokesman in Gaza, said Egypt has gotten "positive signals'' about the opening of the border and that "all future progress on Egypt's part is going to serve the interests of the people of Gaza."
The Egyptian government's traditional disdain for Hamas militants stemmed from Mr. Mubarak's antipathy toward its Egyptian parent, the Muslim Brotherhood. But with the Brotherhood expected to be a leading vote getter in upcoming elections, the government is seen in Israel as eager to reach out to the Palestinian Islamists.
It is unknown what type of border regime the Egyptians and the Palestinians have reached, but it appears to mark a big departure from a U.S.-brokered border accord between Israel and the Palestinians reached months after the Israeli army withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 and reluctantly ceded control of the volatile border to the Palestinian Authority.
That arrangement installed authority forces at the Rafah crossing alongside European Union monitors. The agreement also gave the Israeli security officers the ability to remotely monitor traffic at the border and veto Palestinians.
Because the unity accord negotiated by Egypt leaves Hamas in control of Gaza for the next year, it is unlikely that the Islamic militants will cede control over the border to the Fatah-controlled security forces. It is also doubtful that Hamas will permit European or Israeli monitoring.
Mr. Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama are both expected to give major addresses in the coming weeks aimed at outlining new initiatives to help create an independent Palestinian state. But there is a growing belief in Washington and Europe that Mr. Netanyahu may pull back from taking any bold steps due to Hamas's position in the Palestinian Authority.
Washington and European states are also growing increasingly uncertain about Cairo's future role in the peace process. U.S. and European officials both acknowledged in recent days that they were blindsided by Egypt's decision on Gaza and to announce a unity government. As a result, the rules of the Middle East are increasingly uncertain, they said.
"The Egyptian decisions are a mystery," said a senior European official working on the region.
Nabil Shaath, a negotiator with the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the border deal is still in the works, but suggested that the five year old agreement would not play a factor because "this agreement is not in operation because of the Israeli intransigence and the Israeli siege."
After Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, Israel blockaded the strip except for essential goods. The Israeli government said it hoped to block materiel that could be used to make weapons to attack Israel, but many critics said Israel was using the blockade to punish Gazans for their support of the radical Hamas regime.
Egypt cooperated with the blockade by shutting the border crossing to the territory's 1.5 million Palestinians, except for foreign students, medical patients, businessmen and Gazans with foreign residency. On the Israeli side of the Gaza border, Jerusalem imposed strict commercial restrictions that stifled the Palestinian economy in the territory.
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 senior Israeli official said Jerusalem was appealing to the international community to remind the Egyptian government to honor the peace treaty. Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza have been able to sidestep the blockade by smuggling goods, weapons and cash through hundreds of tunnels under the border.
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 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–a densely populated, religiously radical enclave.
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. 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.
"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," said the Israeli official. "If Egypt ceases trying to prevent that from happening, the threat to Israel will be much greater."
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