Ghassan Khatib
January 29, 2008 - 6:57pm

The dramatic recent developments on the Palestinian-Egyptian border are direct and predictable results of the internationally supported Israeli siege on Gaza. It should have been expected that the mounting pressure on Gaza would cause a popular explosion. The Egyptian border was the weakest link in the prison wall, since all other escape routes, including the sea, are blocked by Israel.

That the Egyptian border should be the weakest link is not a reflection of the performance of Egyptian security. Rather it is a reflection of Egyptian and Arab public sympathy with the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza and a sign of support for the challenge they pose to Israel. The Egyptian government has paid a heavy internal political price for the Israeli siege, which has not been successful in weakening Hamas but has rather backfired by stimulating public sympathy for the movement.

There is no doubt that in the short term this Hamas-orchestrated move has complicated the situation for Hamas' opponents and enemies. It has granted Hamas a notable success in finding a solution to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza created by the Israeli closure, and has given the movement leverage over the Egyptians who will need Hamas to close the border again. Equally importantly, the move managed to sabotage the plan by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Salam Fayyad-led Palestinian Authority government to take over control of the Gaza crossings, including at Rafah, which had been gaining momentum and was embarrassing Hamas.

Hamas aims to achieve international recognition and force Egypt and the PA to deal with it, something both parties have resisted so far. Egypt, which cannot live with the current situation, has two options: to use force, which needs Israeli and American cooperation; or to enter into dialogue, which needs Hamas cooperation. The political costs of the first option could be irredeemably steep, and Egyptian statements on the situation and Egypt's invitation to Hamas and Abbas for dialogue suggest Cairo will go for the second option. The price Hamas will want to extract for such a dialogue to succeed is a role in running the border crossings, especially at Rafah. If Hamas achieves this, it will count as a strategic gain for the movement, on both the political and financial levels.

In the long term, however, the current situation will play into the hands of the strategic Israeli agenda of separating Gaza from the West Bank and getting rid of its responsibility as occupier for the impoverished strip of land by throwing this particular hot potato to Egypt. The unilateral Israeli disengagement plan that was designed and executed by stricken former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon included exactly such a component to de-link Gaza from both the West Bank and Israel and thereby de facto connect it, without agreement, to Egypt. The same was supposed to happen with the populated areas of the West Bank and Jordan, once Israel's wall there was completed. That plan was interrupted by the victory of Hamas in the last Palestinian elections.

The root cause of these complications is the internal contradiction in the position of the international community. On one hand, the international community encouraged, supported and monitored fair and democratic elections in Palestine. On the other, the world refused to accept the result. What is further aggravating the situation is that the policies pursued to reverse Hamas' electoral victory have instead reinforced the factors that strengthened the movement in the first place. Palestinians suffer continued economic deterioration, there is little hope of ending the occupation through peaceful negotiations and Fateh's poor performance on the political and governance levels has not improved.


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