Analysis: Calling Egypt's bluff on Gaza

Egypt's policy remains as it was - not to risk even one Egyptian for the Palestinians' sake.

Good fence pic 298.88 AP (photo credit: )
Good fence pic 298.88 AP
(photo credit: )
The recent news from Gaza reminded Colonel (res.) H. of the IDF's old contingency plans for the breakdown of order in the Strip. His mechanized brigade was to capture the entire Philadelphi Corridor "and then nine or ten D9 bulldozers were to come in and destroy the tunnels." But that was over four years ago. "Now that plan is irrelevant; it will take much more force and anyway we won't be able to do anything without coordinating with the Egyptians," he said. The original "occupied Palestinian territory" was here before 1967, only then it was occupied by the Egyptian army. The Egyptians saw strategic importance in holding on to the Gaza Strip after the War of Independence as a launching pad for murderous attacks, carried out by Palestinian fedayeen, on Israeli settlements. Its army and especially the intelligence service exercised iron control over the Palestinians but Egypt never annexed Gaza. The last thing the Nasser government wanted was responsibility for hundreds of thousands of refugees. In the Camp David Accords, though insisting on the return of every grain of sand in Sinai, there was no similar demand by President Anwar Sadat over Gaza. The Egyptians even insisted on splitting the city of Rafah - which had spread across the border - into two, laying the foundations for today's smuggling operations. About three years ago, when preparations for the disengagement were under way, quiet talks were also held between Israel and Egypt about the responsibility for the border zone after the pullout. These negotiations were generally hid from the Egyptian public, where many still remembered the thousands of soldiers who had died defending the Rafah fortifications in the Six Day War. The last thing the families of Egyptian servicemen wanted was for their loved ones to risk their lives for the Israelis or the Palestinians, neither nation very popular in Cairo. On the other hand, the Egyptian government was eager to impress the Bush administration that it was an integral part of the forces for change in the region, and at the international conference supporting the Palestinian Authority held in London in March 2005, Egyptian diplomats confidently assured that they would indeed take over responsibility for the corridor. There was an additional bonus in it for them. The Camp David Accords forbid Egypt from maintaining a significant military presence in the peninsula. If they were to be responsible for preventing smuggling, the treaty would have to be altered. The changes were made. Egypt was allowed to station an additional 750 border guards with anti-tank missiles and armored vehicles, around Rafah. But once the IDF pulled out of Philadelphi, a few weeks after the disengagement was complete, the tunneling effort by the Palestinian organizations and the Beduin tribes quadrupled and Hamas and Islamic Jihad were stockpiling huge amounts of explosives, arms and sophisticated military hardware. IDF soldiers stationed on the border continuously reported that their counterparts rarely ever moved from their positions. The Egyptian government prefers to operate in and around Rafah using policemen and especially the plains-clothes muhkabarrat secret service. Little escapes them; they know who the smugglers are and where to find them. So why has the smuggling not ceased? The Mubarak administration has its own delicate balancing act to maintain between the calls for democracy and the ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow the secular government. The last thing it needs is to get sucked into the fighting between Israel and the Palestinians and between Fatah and Hamas. Egypt faces an Islamist terrorist threat, with bombings usually targeted at the tourism industry on the southern Red Sea coast of Sinai. So far, North Sinai, which is also close to Cairo and the Nile Delta, has been quiet and that is something they want to maintain at all costs. Allowing Hamas to smuggle arms in to Gaza through their territory is a reasonable price as long as none of it remains behind in Egypt and the Palestinians go about it with discretion. At their summit in Sharm e-Sheikh in January, Mubarak said in Ehud Olmert's presence that the Egyptian efforts against the smuggling are sufficient. The small group of Egyptian officers acting as advisers within Gaza were all withdrawn when the current round of internecine bloodshed began. The policy remains not to risk even one Egyptian for the Palestinians' sake. If the US and Israel are to realize their hopes of a greater Egyptian involvement in dealing with the Hamas mini-state that has sprung up overnight in Gaza, it will only be achieved by a considerable package of incentives, or a serious threat to other interests of the Mubarak regime.