The partial opening of the Rafah crossing by Egypt’s military rulers, coupled
with the anticipation of another Turkish-led naval flotilla seeking to breach
the Gaza blockade, provide a timely opportunity to review the logic of Israel’s
restrictions on movement into and out of the Strip. The Egyptian move also
raises the issue of Gaza’s future relationship with Egypt, Israel and the West
There was never any compelling strategic logic behind Israel’s
refusal to allow civilian goods into Gaza. The idea of punishing 1.5 million
Gazans so that they would remove Hamas from power was pointless and
counterproductive: it impoverished the Gazan farmers and industrialists – the
people with the most interest in cooperative economic relations with Israel –and
empowered tunnel- diggers and others who enjoyed close relations with Hamas. It
also gave Israel a bad name. And it had no effect at all on Hamas’s readiness to
release Gilad Schalit for a reasonable price. In this sense, the only good thing
that came out of last spring’s Turkish flotilla was Israel’s relaxation of that
But preventing the entry by land of dual-use items and
maintaining a naval and air blockade make sense. Israel has enough problems with
Hamas’s aggression against Israeli civilians without allowing it to augment its
arsenal of weapons.
Egypt has until now cooperated closely with Israel’s
military (and economic) boycott efforts, though without having to pay a price in
terms of international condemnation.
The opening of the Rafah crossing
does not appear to violate Egypt’s own rules for restricting the entry of
weaponry and terrorists: There will continue to be limited passage through the
tunnels and virtually none through the actual land-crossing.
military rulers will continue to cooperate with the Israel Defense Forces
regarding Sinai and Gaza security; the border opening is a relatively symbolic
gesture toward the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose loyalty the military
rulers are cultivating.
In other words, the Egyptian military wants Gaza
and Hamas to continue to be Israel’s problem – militarily, politically and
It will, as with past instances, be prepared to off-load
the next Turkish blockade-breaching flotilla at El-Arish and transport the goods
to Gaza by land. But that is not likely to happen, insofar as the flotilla
organizers seek not the well-being of Gazans but rather once again to
de-legitimize and isolate Israel, with Gaza as the excuse.
should Israel do about Gaza and Hamas, particularly in view of the
Egyptian-sponsored Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement that poses the specter
of closer coordination between the West Bank and Gaza? There appear to be three
One is the status quo: muddling through with a
partial blockade, withstanding flotillas and international pressure, threatening
to break or weaken ties with the PLO and Palestinian Authority if Hamas as
currently constituted (rejecting the Quartet’s three conditions) is integrated
into them, and refusing to negotiate with a Palestinian leadership that includes
Hamas. This promises more isolation and international anger but, barring some
major strategic disaster, allows Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to achieve
his primary objective of political survival.
It is no more likely to
bring down Hamas and restore PLO rule in Gaza than any of the abortive measures
Israel has adopted thus far.
A second option is radical: seal the Gaza-
Israel land border, open its naval and air boundaries and challenge Egypt to
deal with the problem of an Islamist entity on the two countries’ border. This,
in effect, generates a “three-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict – not necessarily the worst outcome from Israel’s
But it is liable to muddy Egyptian-Israeli relations at a
critical moment and to inflate Gaza into a pro-Iranian Islamist fortress, armed
to the teeth, on the shores of the Mediterranean.
A third option, also
radical, is to offer to relax the blockade to the maximum without incurring
military dangers and to accept Hamas as an enemy Israel has to try to talk to
without political preconditions, as long as Hamas maintains a ceasefire and
returns Gilad Shalit for a reasonable price. Neither Egypt nor the PLO, both of
which now deal openly with Hamas, could object to in effect being outflanked by
Israel. This option, too, could conceivably generate or perpetuate a three-state
Prior coordination could seek to ensure Quartet backing; in any
case, the Russians and some Europeans are already engaging Hamas or moving in
that direction. This would be particularly needed if the Israeli opening leads
nowhere, Hamas does not reciprocate, and restrictions on Gaza are
Under the circumstances, the third option is worth
The writer, former director of the Jaffee Center for
Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is coeditor of the bitterlemons family
of internet publications, where this article first appeared.