Monday, February 04, 2008

The Egypt-Gaza border breach: a wake up call?

by Clara Marina O'Donnell

Events on the ground in Israel and Gaza have taken a new turn for the worse. But the latest crisis could lead to a more constructive approach in solving the Middle East stand-off. On January 23rd, after Israel further strengthened its siege on Gaza by closing its borders completely, Hamas blew up sections of the border with Egypt. During the following two weeks hundreds of thousands of Palestinians streamed back and forth into Egypt uncontrolled. Most Gazans bought badly needed food and other supplies. But Palestinian militant groups also took advantage of the chaos to stock up on weapons and some tried to infiltrate Israel through the Egyptian border.

The cost for Israel has been high. This morning (February 4th) two suicide bombers killed one and injured over ten in the southern Israeli city of Dimona. The bombing was the first suicide attack in Israel in a year and the attackers (reported as Fatah-allied militants) are suspected to have taken advantage of the border breach to reach Israel.

Potentially, the Gaza-Egypt border crisis could actually be salutory for Palestinian politics and the wider conflict. International players, including the EU, the US and Egypt, are now supporting a plan from the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank, to re-open not only the Egypt-Gaza border, but all of Gaza’s borders. Most outsiders, including the EU and the US, disapprove of Israel’s border closures. They believe the humanitarian cost is too high. So in efforts to lift the siege outsiders are backing President Abbas’s team in the PA who have suggested that PA forces should take charge of all of Gaza’s crossing points (Israel refuses to deal with Hamas border guards). In support of the PA initiative the EU has even offered to reinstate its own border monitors on the Egypt-Gaza border crossing (the EU withdrew its monitors when Hamas took charge in Gaza).

The internationally backed PA plan not only has the potential to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, it could also be a useful first step to a wider reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. For PA border guards (and EU monitors) to function at Gaza’s crossings, some form of agreement will be necessary between Abbas’s Fatah movement and Hamas, whose forces are in control on the ground in Gaza. Since June leaders from Hamas and Fatah have not spoken to each other. But Hamas has been keen to talk in principle and lower-level intermediaries in both parties have been reaching out in attempts to end the current crisis. The border breach could be the catalyst for co-operation.

The border breach confirmed that Hamas cannot be eclipsed or ignored. Despite being shunned for two years by the international community, Hamas is still standing, and it is undermining Israeli sanctions. Only with its cooperation can Gaza’s border crossings be opened, and ultimately, it will also have to play a role in any meaningful peace agreement.

The EU and the US are presumably aware that sending PA border guards to Gaza will require some form of cooperation with Hamas. So by supporting the initiative, the EU and the US are, in effect, making a first step towards ending their own policy of isolating Hamas. Egypt has already crossed the rubicon. Having realised the need to involve Hamas in solving the Egypt-Gaza border crisis, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited Fatah and Hamas leaders to Cairo last week to encourage a reconciliation between the two groups.

An agreement on opening Gaza’s borders is far from a done deal. Despite Egyptian efforts, both Hamas leaders and Abbas (in particular) have so far been unwilling to be conciliatory. And even if a Fatah-Hamas deal is reached, Israel will still need to be convinced to re-open its side of Gaza’s borders.

Israel will certainly protest. But the government will be in a difficult position and might see the potential advantages to such a deal. The suicide bombing has showed Israel the costly unintended consequences of strict sanctions. Israel might want to re-consider its boycott policy. In addition, if Israel refuses to accept a PA-Hamas deal, the government will face the uncomfortable prospect of seeing Egypt and Hamas reaching an agreement on the Egypt-Gaza border alone or Hamas continuing to breach the Egypt-Gaza border violently. Either way, Israel’s boycott and security will be undermined.

There is a sense of urgency. The attack on a wall speaks volumes about the misery and passions bottled up in Gaza. The human suffering is increasing radicalisation among its residents, and reducing support for President Abbas amongst the Palestinians in general. While Hamas is isolated and no border agreement is reached, Israel is vulnerable to further border breaches and penetrations by Palestinian militants through Egypt. Today’s suicide bombing will make it harder for conciliatory forces to gain the upper had, but outsiders, including the EU, should take advantage of every opportunity to encourage a change in the current course of events.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform

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