Analysis: The unholy return of the Palestinian pilgrims

There is a warning for America, too, in this affair: Don't push Egypt too far.

rafah return 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
rafah return 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
After three days of a tense standoff, Egypt's determination not to allow the thousands of pilgrims returning from Mecca into the Gaza Strip without being thoroughly checked by Israel to prevent smuggling of explosives and cash to bolster Hamas rule finally crumbled and a jubilant crowd surged into the strip. One can wonder why they were allowed to cross unsupervised into Egypt in the first place - in spite of Israel's protests, which went unheeded. Under the joint agreement signed by Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the European Union following Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza, the checkpoint at Rafah between the Gaza Strip and Egypt was to have been closely monitored by EU inspectors and double-checked by Israel through video surveillance. However, things did not go according to plan. The Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip led to the precipitated flight of the EU inspectors, who feared for their lives, and ultimately to the closing of the checkpoint. This new breach of the border agreement comes against the backdrop of the unending flow of smuggled weapons, explosives and terrorists through the tunnels under what is known in Israel as the Philadelphi Corridor, the narrow stretch of land along the border. Israel has repeatedly protested to the Egyptian authorities - with no discernible effects - and this has led to a heightening of tension between the two countries. The visit of Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Egypt last week was intended to defuse the situation. Barak did come back with a firm Egyptian commitment to have the pilgrims cross through the Kerem Shalom checkpoint so that Israel could make sure that no explosives or cash for Hamas would go through. It may have been naïve to believe that this is what would happen. The pilgrims were very vocal in their determination to go back the way they had come, and their makeshift camps with wailing women and resolute men made front page news throughout the Arab world. Mubarak did try to denounce Arab media, but the outcry did not abate and he gave in. Egypt was not prepared to be portrayed any longer as a country persecuting innocent pilgrims in order to do Israel's bidding. Two years ago, the decision to withdraw from Philadelphi was not taken lightly. Many voices had been raised to warn that it would be folly to entrust the Egyptians with guarding the border. However, a legal argument won the day: Israel, it was argued, would still be considered as the occupying power if if the IDF remained along the border. It turned out to have been a major mistake. In spite of the fact that not a single Israeli soldier remains there, in world public opinion Israel is still the occupying power. Worse, entrusting the Egyptian with guarding the border showed a staggering lack of strategic understanding. Though Egypt has made peace with Israel, it is first and foremost an Arab country aspiring to regional leadership, and wholeheartedly on the side of the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel. The idea that Egyptian soldiers would be instructed to stop smuggling at all costs - which means they would have to resort to violence and to live fire - is ludicrous in that context. Egypt cannot afford the opprobrium that would be attached to killing Palestinians on an almost daily basis for the sake of keeping the border safe for Israel. Huge public demonstration and rioting could occur in Egypt. We just saw the way President Hosni Mubarak had to bow to pressure and let the pilgrims go, in spite of his undertaking to Ehud Barak. It is now up to Israel to think long and hard about what it wants to do. What we need is a solution, not someone to blame. There is a warning for America, too, in that story: Don't push Egypt too far. Zvi Mazel is Israel's former ambassador to Egypt.