The recent breach of Egypt s border with Gaza accentuated the risks implied in the current situation in the Strip. Losing control over that border for ten consecutive days proved to be embarrassing for Cairo. Bending to the plot implemented by Hamas operatives embarrassed Egypt even further.
Far more serious than just the embarrassment, the infiltration of suspect terrorists into Egypt is a major security concern for a country that has been in a continuous war on terror for the past 30 years.
The collapse of order at Egypt s border with Gaza encouraged both Hamas and Israel to capitalize on the developing situation. Seeking both de facto recognition as the legal authority in Gaza and the relaxation of the Gaza blockade, Hamas demanded the dismantlement of the multilateral arrangements regulating the crossing between Egypt and Gaza, allowing Hamas a say if not a monopoly on the operation of the Palestinian side of the crossing.
On the Israeli side, some watched with joy as Hamas took former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon s disengagement plan with Gaza a step further. Shifting the burden of Gaza from Israel to Egypt and the elimination of Israel s legal responsibility over Gaza is an Israeli dream that is coming true thanks to Hamas. Moreover, the farfetched proposals entertained by some in Israel to enlarge the tiny but overpopulated Gaza Strip through the annexation of adjacent Egyptian territories demonstrate the recklessness in dealing with pillars of regional security and order that has been encouraged by Hamas plot.
Restoring order on Egypt s borders with Gaza was the immediate concern in Cairo. It took ten days to end the breach. Now the developments of these ten days require an overhauling of Egypt s policy toward Gaza. The Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007 widened the gulf separating Gaza from the West Bank. The ideological and political rivalry between the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza makes it unlikely the current fissure in Palestine will be bridged in the near future. The Hamas-controlled Palestinian entity in Gaza is likely to survive for a long time.
A long-term policy rather than the ad-hoc arrangements of the past is badly needed. Egypt s approach to Gaza is guided, or rather constrained, by a number of considerations. For one, Cairo should not be perceived as participating in the Gaza blockade. Contributing to the suffering of fellow Arabs could hurt the legitimacy of any Arab government.
On the other hand, Egypt should not contribute to the consolidation and legitimization of the Hamas regime in Gaza. A radical Palestinian entity on the Israeli-Egyptian border could further complicate the already strained relations between the two countries. Moreover, containing the Hamas-led government in Gaza is an integral part of the efforts of moderate Arab governments to curb the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East. The blockade imposed on the little strip exposes Hamas weaknesses and might, in the long term, cause the fall of Hamas from power, or force it into reconciliation with the legitimate PNA in the West Bank.
Third, moves that would change the current legal status of Palestinian territories could further destabilize the region and threaten vital Egyptian interests. Such changes should be only in the direction of the establishment of a united Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Transitional or interim arrangements are welcome as long as they contribute to the materialization of the two-state solution.
Egypt needs to strike a balance among these three major considerations. Hamas should be denied the leverage of using the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza to further enhance its power. It is the political and ideological choices of Hamas, not Egyptian policy, that further worsen humanitarian conditions of the Palestinians in Gaza. Yet Egypt should also avoid being depicted as if it is contributing to the Gaza blockade. Necessary commodities should be allowed into Gaza in a regulated way. Should Hamas, the PNA and Israel continue to fail to reach a working arrangement toward this end, border crossings on the Egypt-Gaza border could be a substitute. Alleviating the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza while denying Hamas the opportunity to claim victory should be the principle guiding the movement of goods into Gaza. Movement of individuals, on the other hand, should be highly restricted: an uncompromising policy toward attempts to replicate the recent breach of the border should be made clear and credible.
The success of a new Egyptian policy toward Gaza is better served if Egypt succeeds in securing the cooperation of interested actors, particularly the PNA, Israel, the US and the EU. Unfortunately, the chances of winning Israel and the PNA s cooperation look limited. But Egypt should not remain hostage to Israeli and Palestinian politics. On the other hand, there is a reasonable possibility of winning the cooperation or at least the understanding of the US and the EU, particularly the latter.
At the same time, avoiding the complete alienation of both Israel and the PNA is essential for Egyptian national interests. Egypt should keep consulting Israel on all relevant issues, including security arrangements at the border with Gaza. It should also make clear that a change of policy toward Gaza does not breach Egypt s policy toward the PNA as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
For Egypt, the border breach might be a mixed blessing. The crisis at the Gaza border allowed the Egyptian government the opportunity to defuse mounting domestic pressure to help the people of Gaza. At the same time, the flooding of Egypt s borders with hundreds of thousands of foreigners and the accompanying violations, invoked in Egyptians a latent national identity that is sometimes overshadowed by the supranational Arab and Islamic identities. It also invoked past memories – when Egypt was dragged into conflicts provoked by reckless regional actors.
Decision-makers in Egypt have always believed that the situation that developed in Gaza after last summer is not sustainable. The pilgrims crisis of last December, in particular, demonstrated the difficulties implied in the situation. However, winning the needed domestic and international support for a new policy was unlikely prior to the incidents of recent weeks.
Gamal A. G. Soltan is a senior research fellow at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and professor of political science at AUC. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.