Haaretz (Editorial)
January 24, 2008 - 6:07pm

The closure imposed a year ago on the Gaza Strip by Israel and Egypt was effectively lifted yesterday after hundreds of thousands of Gazans overran the Egyptian border. According to United Nations reports, about 20 percent of Gaza's population crossed into the Egyptian side of Rafah on foot and in cars after explosives were used to destroy about two-thirds of the border barrier overnight Tuesday. The likelihood of a few hundred Egyptian soldiers being able to prevent the entry of hundreds of thousands of people was small, even if the Egyptians had wanted to protect their border using force, as they had the previous day.

Now that the barrier is down, it is hard to imagine that the situation in Gaza can be restored to its previous state. Even if Egypt closes the border again, it will be forced to reopen it, at least partially, whenever there is pressure. The Egyptians cannot maintain permanently the total closure that they decided on a year ago, after Hamas came to power in the Strip.

President Hosni Mubarak has made it clear that he will permit Gazans to buy food and that he cannot shut his eyes to their suffering. An Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman said the border will be closed again but refuted Israeli claims that Egypt is responsible for what happens in Gaza. The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement that was the opposite of the Egyptian claims and stated that Egypt is responsible for ensuring that the border operates properly.

The contradictory announcements by the Israeli and Egyptian foreign ministries demonstrate that both parties feel that a definitive, perhaps strategic, change is taking place in the Strip and want to restore the situation to what it had been. It is doubtful this can be done. The closure of Gaza did not stop the Qassams, but now there are worrying signs that it could damage Israel's relations with Egypt unless both countries' leaderships are not careful in their responses.

The crisis in Rafah was apparently not foreseen by the best of Israel's policy makers. Now, after it has happened, it is worth using the crisis to set policies that are more creative than assassinations and starvation and to try to avoid becoming fixated on the usual, predictable responses and on laying blame in all directions. The Egyptians could now become the unwitting leaders in finding an agreed-on solution. This could be the time to assert joint responsibility for the border crossings, with the participation of the Palestinian government and international organizations.

Hamas used the closure to create sympathy for the people of Gaza. The destruction of the border barrier is also perceived as a legitimate prison break. A statesmanlike response is now needed to turn the crisis into an opportunity.

Because none of the players is on its own and the parties' interests are interwoven, one can hope that Egypt and Israel, with help from the international community, can create new facts on the ground. If there is a moderate leadership that can be relied on, and if Mubarak and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are part of it, then this is the moment they need to cooperate and put themselves in the forefront.


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