The onset of 2009 came hot on the heels of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip which began with airstrikes on Dec. 27, 2008 before Israeli ground troops moved in on Jan. 3 this year.
A six-month ceasefire had ended Dec. 18, 2008 between Hamas and Israel, and on Dec. 24 Hamas resumed rocket attacks on Southern Israel after the Israeli Defense Forces had killed seven of its members in an airstrike.
The offensive lasted 22 days and caused the death of around 1,400 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians (over 1,000) and including more than 100 women and 300 children. Israel casualties numbered 13, three of them civilians.
Aside from the high civilian death toll, Israel was also severely criticized for the use of white phosphorous in urban areas, which is considered illegal by the United Nations.
Egypt also came under a hailstorm of criticism for its role during the attack. First there was the visit of then Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to Cairo two days before the offensive – where she effectively announced Israel’s intention to attack Gaza – with the infamous picture of her and Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Aboul Gheit arm in arm.
Then there was Egypt’s refusal to open the Rafah border crossing during the war. However, throughout the duration of the offensive, medical aid was transported into Gaza via the Rafah crossing and injured Palestinians were allowed through the crossing to be treated in Egypt’s hospitals.
“We in Egypt are not going to contribute to perpetuating the rift (between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority) by opening the Rafah crossing in the absence of the PA and EU observers in violation of the 2005 deal, President Hosni Mubarak said at the time.
Protests erupted across the Arab world as well as within Egypt against the Israeli offensive and the continued closure of the Rafah border crossing. However, there were other Egyptians who were more supportive of the regime’s stance during the war.
Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire after 22 days. By then, US President Barack Obama had announced that George Mitchell would be special envoy to the Middle East.
In March, Egypt hosted a Gaza reconstruction conference in Sharm El-Sheikh that was attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair.
Billions were pledged in aid by donor countries, mainly from the EU, but many stressed the need for a political solution and others voiced concern over possible further destruction to Gaza following reconstruction attempts.
In September, the UN fact finding mission on the Gaza offensive headed by Richard Goldstone released its report, in which it held Israel responsible for a plethora of violations under international law.
The report concluded that there was strong evidence that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed in the conflict. Although it also held Hamas responsible for some violations, the report concluded that Israel had acted with impunity and disregard for international law during its attack.
Mediation on all fronts
Throughout the rest of the year, Egypt – represented by Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman – continued mediation efforts between Hamas and Fatah, in an attempt to form a new unity government. Egypt had set a June deadline for an agreement to be reached, but when it seemed that they were no closer to an agreement, the deadline was postponed indefinitely.
On a separate but parallel tack, Egypt – again represented by Suleiman – worked alongside Germany to arbitrate between Hamas and Israel over the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (taken in 2007) in exchange for a number of Palestinian prisoners.
Rumors abounded that the deal was on the verge of completion, only for officials from both sides to come out and refute them. It was reported that Israel was balking at the release of Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, incarcerated since 2002 and serving five consecutive life sentences.
The year 2009 came to an end with Palestinian unity talks still at an impasse, Gaza still under siege and the Rafah border crossing still closed, being opened only intermittently and arbitrarily.
However, there was a twist in the tale come December, when it emerged that Egypt was building an iron wall beneath the border with Gaza in an effort to bring an end to smuggling activities that have provided a lifeline to the besieged Gazans.
Although Egypt denied it at first, photographs soon surfaced of the digging taking place as well as a section of the dug up wall that had already been built.
Eventually, Egypt did admit to the building of the new barrier, but stated that it was merely reinforcing the existing barrier separating the Egyptian side of Rafah from the Palestinian one in an attempt to protect Egypt’s sovereignty.
The construction of the underground wall came under fire, both literally and politically. Reports claimed that shots were fired from the Gaza side of the border at Egyptians installing the barrier, with no injuries. Later, Hamas staged a protest against the construction of the wall, with its spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri calling it an unjustifiable situation .
During the same week, Egypt rejected a request by international activists to organize a march to the Gaza Strip via Egypt to mark one year since an Israeli attack on the enclave. The Gaza Freedom March organizers, however, vowed to move forward with their plans to march to the border on Dec. 31.