Israel's deference to Egyptian sensitivities enabled Hamas to build up its military strength. If the diplomats fail again, the next confrontation will be far worse.
In late December 2007, at a meeting with a very senior Israeli defense official, The Jerusalem Post was told about a videotape, compiled by the security establishment, which documented Egypt's failure to effectively seal its border with Gaza.
The tape, the Post was told, featured evidence of Egyptian assistance in arms smuggling and included footage of Egyptian security personnel aiding Hamas terrorists crossing illegally into Gaza. At one point, Egyptian border policemen were seen helping a group of some 80 Hamas personnel slip into the Strip through a hole cut in the border fence.
The Post was told that the tape was being sent to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and we reported this. The security establishment's intention and expectation was that the tape would be made available on Capitol Hill. The aim was to encourage Congress to use the leverage of US financial aid to Egypt to press for more effective controls.
In the previous four months alone, according to information then compiled by the IDF, more than 100 tons of explosives had been smuggled into the Strip, as well as 20,000 rifles, 6,000 anti-tank missiles and immense supplies of ammunition. Only days earlier, Israel had also filed an official complaint with Cairo for unilaterally opening the Rafah crossing - ostensibly for Palestinians travelling to the Haj. In fact, Israel charged, this freedom of access was abused by a significant number of Hamas personnel to travel to Lebanon and Iran for military training.
Egypt ridiculed the IDF's arms smuggling figures.
"To get those quantities [of weaponry] into Gaza," scoffed an Egyptian official at the time, "you would need to have a tunnel every 10 meters."
Despite the extraordinary gravity of the arms smuggling, and despite the most senior defense echelon's profound interest in alerting US legislators to the danger in the hope of prompting economic pressure on Cairo, the security establishment's videotape was not, in fact, swiftly made available in Washington.
Reading the Post's report on the tape, several US legislators contacted Israeli diplomats to ask why they hadn't received it. In response, in some cases, they were told that there was no such tape, and that the Post's story was untrue.
In fact, as the Post then established, the tape was shown only to some US administration officials and not made available to Congress because Israel's political and diplomatic leaders decided it did not want to infuriate the Egyptians by distributing it more widely.
A senior defense official had noted to the Post that "if key congressmen and senators see this, then it will provide a clear picture of the situation and ensure that [part of] the [US military aid] money is withheld. When this happens, [Egypt's President Hosni] Mubarak will feel that he has no choice but to stop the smuggling."
The political-diplomatic echelon thought differently. As we reported, "The perception that won the day this time was that over-involvement would be seen by Cairo as an infringement of certain diplomatic 'rules' between the two countries and could lead to a major crisis."
The US Congress was already deeply concerned by the scale of the smuggling. The foreign aid bill it sent to President George W. Bush that month, unprecedentedly, conditioned $100 million of the $1.3 billion in Egyptian military aid on Cairo's efforts to crack down on smuggling into Gaza and improve its human rights record. But the incontrovertible filmed evidence of how profoundly Egypt was failing itself, Israel and indeed Gaza by enabling Hamas to significantly bolster its military capability, evidence painstakingly compiled by the Israeli security establishment, was denied the US legislators.
On December 24, 2007, at a meeting of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Likud's Yuval Steinitz directly challenged Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on the issue, asking why her ministry had intervened to block distribution of the tape. "Israel could have scored a major victory with the US Congress, and persuaded them that Egypt is incapable of defending the border," said Steinitz.
Livni was unmoved. Egypt's "performance on the Gaza border is awful and problematic," she acknowledged. "The weapons smuggling lowers the chances that pragmatic factions in Gaza and the West Bank will regain control."
But some things are "done behind the scenes," she declared. "Every move needs to be calculated. To take an extreme scenario, would you sever relations with Egypt over weapons smuggling?"
LIVNI'S COLLEAGUES in the security establishment were clearly not suggesting that Israel move anywhere near the extreme scenario of breaking ties with Egypt. They were, rather, desperate to raise awareness of the scale of the danger, and thus to ratchet up the pressure on Egypt to thwart it.
And the security establishment's prime concern was not, as Livni put, that the smuggling reduced the prospects of "pragmatic factions" regaining control of Gaza from the Islamists. Rather, the defense establishment was bitterly aware that the explosives and rockets being smuggled in, and the military commanders coming home from terror training in Iran and Lebanon, had Israel in their sights. The porous Gaza-Egypt border spelled an inevitable bloody military confrontation for Israel - an intensification of the rocket attacks that had been blighting the "Gaza envelope" communities for seven years, and, sooner or later, counter-measures from the IDF.
And so it came to pass.
By last month, the Hamas smuggling apparatus had expanded considerably. Numerous additional terror leaders had gone out to training camps and returned home to disseminate their murderous expertise.
Israel found itself under escalated Hamas attack, with rockets no longer merely capable of terrorizing the civilian areas immediately adjacent to Gaza, but a full million Israelis in cities as distant as Ashkelon, Beersheba, Ashdod and Kiryat Gat.
Over the past three weeks, the IDF has carried out repeated bombing attacks on the tunnel network beneath the Philadelphi Corridor, destroying dozens upon dozens of smuggling routes. But the challenge is considerable. It is estimated that no fewer than 300 tunnels were operating at the start of Operation Cast Lead, many of them coming up to air inside Palestinian homes that had encroached ever closer to the border. This weekend, IDF sources said many of the tunnels were still operating, and that Hamas was still able to import further weaponry even as the fighting raged.
Quite unrepentant, Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit twice this week dismissed Israeli complaints about the tunnels. As far as he knew, only food and other essential supplies were being spirited into the Israeli-blockaded Strip. How, he asked aloud, could Egypt intervene to stop such essential supplies reaching the Palestinian people?
Arms were reaching Hamas, Aboul Gheit allowed, but from the sea, where it was Israel's responsibility to intercept them.
ISRAEL'S POLITICAL and diplomatic emissaries were scurrying as the weekend loomed to try to put together a package of carrots and sticks, via Washington, to persuade Egypt to oversee a more effective anti-smuggling mechanism once the fighting ended. Amid reports that Germany was offering technical assistance and the US intelligence input to intercept weapons shipments long before they get to the Sinai, Egypt plainly remains the key player, and its need to both seal its Gaza border more effectively, and closely monitor a security zone en route to the border, paramount. But leverage on Cairo is in short supply.
Israel's leaders said they believed the dramatic resort to force had already succeeded in deterring Hamas from attempting further rocket fire, but they had also conditioned an end to Operation Cast Lead on the establishment of that viable border mechanism.
Unfortunately, in contrast to last year, the new US aid appropriation features no provision for the withholding of funds over Egypt's dismal performance at the Philadelphi Corridor. Evidently, US legislators were not alerted by Israel to the possibility that such leverage might be useful.
Livni presided over the diplomatic process that ended the Second Lebanon War with a resolution that signally failed to prevent Hizbullah rearming across the Syria-Lebanon border. Having exploited that deficient diplomacy, Hizbullah today poses a greater military threat to Israel than it did in 2006. Two and a half years later, in utter contrast, Livni has for several days now been urging a unilateral Israeli halt to the assault on Hamas - without a formal diplomatic resolution, and without even an agreed mechanism in place to prevent Hamas rearming via Egypt.
The foreign minister argues credibly that Israel should not be concluding cease-fire deals with a terrorist group, legitimating its rule. But it is not clear why she does not share her other leadership colleagues' awareness of the imperative to attain a viable, enforceable anti-smuggling regimen as a central condition for ending the fighting.
On this vital point, as when preventing defense chiefs from highlighting the danger 13 months ago with the videotape, Livni again finds herself at odds with much of the Israeli security establishment.
OPERATION CAST LEAD intensified on Thursday, with IDF forces striking deeper into Gaza City. The widespread expectation, however, was that it was nearing its end. A new US president is about to take office. The government has hesitated and ultimately seems disinclined to order a greatly escalated "Phase Three" ground offensive. Key figures in the Likud opposition, including party leader Binyamin Netanyahu and the would-be defense minister Moshe Ya'alon, strikingly, are not pushing for "Phase Three" either.
International criticism is growing still louder. A veteran BBC reporter's assertion to Channel 2 on Wednesday night that "the numbers speak for themselves" - 1,000 dead Palestinians and "only" 13 Israelis - serves to underline the refusal of many journalists and political leaders to look more closely at the root causes of this conflict, and identify who really bears responsibility for Palestinian civilian deaths.
In several interviews this week, I was asked by foreign reporters about the "disproportion" of Israel's response; if only a few hundred Israelis had been killed too, it appeared, everything would have been all right. But hundreds of Israelis have not been killed, despite Hamas's best efforts, because Israel builds bomb shelters and alarm systems for its people. Gaza civilians have died, terribly, because Hamas has chosen to fire and fight from their homes and schools and mosques, to deliberately place them in harm's way, even as the IDF tries to avoid them.
Unsatisfied with my response, I was asked, then, whether Israel's purported indifference to the deaths of so many Palestinians was a consequence of under-reporting of Gaza's bleak and bloody reality in the Israeli media. Was it that unbalanced reporting, it was speculated, that enabled the government to maintain such wide public support for the operation?
But Israel's media has not under-reported the impact on Gaza of Israel's decision to confront Hamas. The prime time nightly news shows have been full of harrowing reports from the Strip; so, too, our newspapers. A country that can produce Waltz with Bashir does not shirk from soul-searching. Israel, I would venture, feels deep sorrow for Gaza's innocents, but not guilt. Guilt lies with Hamas, for premeditatedly bringing violence down upon civilians on either side of what should have been a tranquil border.
Even as they publicly accuse Israel of genocide and war crimes, Arab leaders know all this. Loyalists of Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority, routed from Gaza 19 months ago by the same vicious Hamas, know it best of all. Yet they, too, persist in misrepresenting this conflict as the repression of Palestine, the deepening of occupation. Hamas, it should not need repeating, regards the PA as traitorous and Israel's very existence as profane. It seeks not the liberation of Gaza, already Judenrein, as many Palestinian spokespeople have risibly claimed these past three weeks, but the eclipse of Fatah in the West Bank and the elimination of Israel.
THAT THIS overt agenda is so widely overlooked in the international interpretation of this conflict is only one of what Hamas is confident will be many cease-fire victories.
It will delight in the international upsurge of anti-Semitism, and the deepening challenges to Israel's legitimacy. It will smirk at the criticism of Israel's heavy hand, and marvel at the watching world's capacity to forget the violence it unleashed against its own people when taking power in June 2007.
It will assert victory in its survival, and in the intensification of hostility to Israel among a Gaza population that already gave two-thirds support to Hamas in the parliamentary elections three years ago. Hamas's political leaders fled and hid; its fighting forces looted the international humanitarian supplies and booby-trapped the schools. Daily life in the West Bank, with Hamas kept in check, is starting to improve. But it is a sadly safe bet that Gazans will draw no self-serving conclusions and turn against the Islamists.
Hamas, in "victory," will depict Israel's disinclination to cause further civilian anguish by eschewing a lengthy battle in the heart of the refugee camps as evidence of Israel's gutlessness and of its fighters' heroism. The failure of Hizbullah, Syria and Iran to provide any assistance and the betrayal of the rest of the Arab world, Hamas will crow from amid Gaza's ruins, merely render its "resistance" all the more admirable.
But these "successes" will only have real value for Hamas if, after the guns fall silent, it can emulate its tenacious big brother to the north. For while Hamas may be deterred from provoking another round of conflict with Israel so long as it is weakened, its response will be simply to ensure it is stronger next time.
And if a repeat of Israeli diplomatic foolishness, and misplaced deference to Egypt, facilitate a Hizbullah-style enhancement of Hamas's capacity to kill, then the numbers, next time, really will speak for themselves.
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