The Mass March Menace

Guided by Egypt, Palestinian strategy poses harsh challenges to Israel.

Naksa Day protests at Kalandia 311 (photo credit: LOAY ABU HAYKEL / REUTERS)
Naksa Day protests at Kalandia 311
(photo credit: LOAY ABU HAYKEL / REUTERS)
EVENTS IN EGYPT HAVE AN effect on the entire Arab world. Policies set by the government in Cairo determine the policies of the entire Arab world. Egypt leads the way – especially with regard to the State of Israel.
This is as true for the dramatic events in Egypt that have shaken up the entire region as it is for a much less dramatic event – the decision by the new regime to open the Rafah crossing and to permit passage between Egypt and the Hamas-run government in Gaza.
Egypt has been the lead actor in the Israel-Palestinian drama ever since Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. It was Egypt that led the Arab armies into war. It was the Egyptians who advanced northward from Gaza and threatened the suburbs of Tel Aviv, but only got as far as Ashdod on the coast because they sent part of their armies towards Hebron and Jerusalem in an unsuccessful bid to prevent King Abdullah of Jordan from conquering the West Bank. And, when the battles were over, the Egyptians led the other Arab nations to Rhodes, where they signed the armistice agreement with the State of Israel.
The Arab nations continued to follow Egypt when Gamal Abdul Nasser chose the path of military confrontation with Israel. Egypt initiated the two bloody wars – the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973 – and the other Arab armies joined in: Nasser brought Jordan into the war in 1967 and Syria joined forces with Anwar Sadat in 1973.
In 1977, Cairo decided to change direction. Sadat made his surprise visit to Jerusalem and delivered his famous speech to the Knesset in which he called for no more war and no more bloodshed. The Arab nations were stunned; they condemned Sadat, calling him a traitor to the Arab and Palestinian causes.
FOLLOWING SADAT’S VISIT TO Jerusalem, the Egyptians invited a group of Israeli journalists. Together with my colleagues, I spent over a month in the Egyptian capital. We met with Sadat for a press briefing, and that was when it became clear to me that the Egyptians see themselves not only as the leaders of the Arab world, but as the first advanced civilization in the entire world.
Pointing to their ancient sites and culture, Egyptians refer to themselves as “the mother of the world” (um al-donya). During one of our meetings, in which the Arab condemnation of Egypt came up, one of the Israelis turned to Sadat, “Egypt is indeed the largest Arab state…” the journalist began, but Sadat cut him off brusquely. “It’s obvious that we are the largest Arab state,” he said. (Today Egypt has a population of some 80 million.) “But I want to tell you that we are not only the largest state, we are essentially the only Arab state.”
The discomfort in the room was palpable: what did Sadat mean when he said that Egypt is the only Arab state? Were there no other Arab states? Speaking loudly, his voice tinged with contempt and disdain, Sadat declared, “The rest of the Arabs are not states. They are merely tribes with flags.” How, he demanded, did these mere tribes dare to criticize him and call him a traitor? His anger growing, he challenged, “Who are these tribes anyway?
I remember that meeting well. For years, I continued to think that Sadat had really overstated his point and that his disdain for the other Arab nations was hubris.
Yet in the past few months, I have begun to reconsider. After all, following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s vicious and cruel regime in Baghdad, Iraq disintegrated into tribes and ethnic groups – Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, who are unable to unite as a nation. Libya and Yemen have both splintered into tribes. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates are tribal states, as is, to a certain extent, Jordan. Lebanon is ruled by a tribal/ethnic system that regulates relations between Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, Druze and all of the other 21 ethnic groups that live there. And Syria may well disintegrate into its own tribes, if and when the Allawi regime led by Bashar Assad crumbles.
Indeed, the collective national perspective that has taken root so strongly in Europe over the past few centuries is not reflected in the rest of the Arab world. It is only the Egyptian people who have been able to harness their historical, social and geographical (the Nile River as the center of life) circumstances to create a cohesive nation-state.
Egypt leads the Arab world today, and Egypt is pointing in a new direction. This is not the result of a formal decision taken during secret meetings; it has evolved due to the confluence of several factors. The first, and the most important, is that a military option against Israel is not realistic for either Egypt or any of the other Arab states. This is particularly clear for Egypt: during the Cold War, Egypt enjoyed the support of the Soviet Union and its satellites, but the Egyptian military, social and economic structures could no longer withstand a protracted conflict.
Nor does a ballistic war, so widely discussed recently, present a viable option for the Palestinians or the Arabs. The thousands of missiles deployed in Lebanon and Syria are capable of reaching any and all targets within Israel, but leaders in Beirut and Damascus are well aware that the price that they would pay for using those missiles would be horrendous.
Over the past few years, Israel and Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon have maintained a balance based on mutual fear, and neither side would want to actually test the other. If missiles were sent to destroy Israel – the destruction in Syria and Lebanon would be much worse. Following the Second Lebanon War, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah implied as much, when he stated that if he had known what it would lead to, he would not have arranged for the ambush and killing of Israeli soldiers on Israel’s northern border.
The war of terror has come to an end, too, since Israeli security has learned how to deal with terror and minimize its threat.
Egypt also knows that, unfortunately, there is no option of a peace arrangement between Palestinians and Arabs and the State of Israel. Under the current circumstances, the distance between the sides apparently cannot be bridged. There is some validity to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s claims that for 18 years, ever since the Oslo Accords, each and every Israeli administration has tried to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and failed. Labor-led and Likud-led, left, right and national unity – each government has tried, offering one map or another, suggesting this complicated equation or that. All to no avail.
SO WHAT IS LEFT? MASS DEMONstrations and rallies worked in Tunis and Egypt, severely affected the leaders of Libya and Yemen and it is threatening the ruler of Syria. So obviously, this is the way to go.
Popular, nonviolent protests have been taking place in the Palestinian West Bank for months. Every Friday, dozens and hundreds of protesters gather in Bil’in and Ni’lin, in Nebi Salah and northwards; in Wallaja, Silwan, and Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem. On Nakba and Naksa days, Palestinians also marched in the north and thousands marched towards the Qalandiya checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
As long as there are only dozens or even hundreds of demonstrators, Israeli security authorities can deal with them. But what if they come by the thousands? The IDF soldiers and the border police will have no choice but to open fire. Of course, they will first try to disperse the crowds with sticks, tear gas, rubber and plastic bullets, electric shocks and water cannons. But these means are effective only against relatively small groups. Every time, everywhere in the world, when there are large groups of demonstrators, there are casualties. Lots of casualties.
The international community will not stand silently by if blood is spilled every day as crowds of demonstrators converge on the Qalandiya checkpoint, on the fences of the settlements in Samaria, or on the border of Kiryat Arba and the Jewish settlement in Hebron. And it won’t matter if these demonstrations are well-planned – events in Tahrir Square in Egypt and in the small towns and suburbs of Damascus in Syria weren’t well-planned, and they have been stunningly successful.
The new regime in Egypt convinced Hamas to sign the reconciliation agreement with the Fatah and to agree to the establishment of a unity government composed of experts rather than politicians. In exchange, Egypt opened up the Rafah crossing and Hamas has stopped firing missiles at Israel. For years, Hamas has tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain any form of legitimacy in the Arab world. Now, the opening of the Rafah crossing (at this point, for people only and not for goods) is a form of de facto Egyptian recognition of Hamas’s rule in Gaza.
In Cairo, under the temporary military regime of General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and in Ramallah, among the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas, it is realized that this reconciliation and recognition of Hamas will make negotiations with Israel impossible, since Israel will not, under any circumstances, negotiate with any Palestinian delegation supported by Hamas.
Instead of negotiations, this summer, before and after September (the date of the bid for recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN), we’ll be seeing more and more popular demonstrations and marches. The media will show images of the dead and wounded. And many in the world are just waiting for the moment that they will be able to draw the parallels between the government of Israel and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar Assad in Syria.
And so the campaign to delegitimize the Jewish State will gain support.
This is the real danger facing Netanyahu. We’re talking about weeks or months – or maybe less.