Ezzedine Choukri Fishere
The Daily Star
February 25, 2009 - 1:00am

The recent Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip resuscitated the debate over a possible international role in the besieged territory. What capacity, if any, can the international community fill in order to help run Gaza's crossings, patrol its borders, ensure equitable distribution of humanitarian assistance and support imminent reconstruction efforts?

This debate is as old as Israeli unilateral withdrawal plans. In 2003, many United Nations officials suggested that an international force along Gaza's borders was the best way to ensure stability and security for both Israel and for the Palestinians after Israel's withdrawal. They took their case to world capitals and the region, arguing that such a "presence" could, inter alia, involve patrolling the border and territorial waters to prevent smuggling and illegal passage, training and assisting the Palestinian Authority's security forces to enhance their capacity to enforce law and order, and facilitating the crossings' operation and communication between the parties as well as assisting in the reconstruction effort.

The United Nations prepared an operational plan for this presence, including various options for its mandate, command and control structure as well as its "exit clause". While Bush administration officials showed openness to the proposals, the Israeli government and its supporters in the United States stood firm against it. Instead, Israeli officials focused their attention on persuading Egypt to play an expanded role in shaping Gaza's security situation. Ultimately, Egypt declined such a responsibility, and the UN-led presence idea was nipped in the bud.

Twenty months after Hamas seized power in Gaza, an international presence or role has once again become a policy option. However, the difficulty this time is greater: To establish an international presence in Gaza, one needs the consent of those whom that presence is de facto targeting. No Egyptian, Arab or international force can be deployed in Gaza against the will of the Hamas movement. For more than a year and a half, the concerned parties have been trying every acrobatic move possible in order to avoid the simple fact that Hamas is in control of the Gaza Strip. The movement's consent - like its protection - is necessary to run crossings, distribute aid, reconstruct or simply organize the visit of a foreign dignitary. This is the plain fact that the international community needs to recognize as it tries to resolve the Gaza issue.

The question then becomes two: First, what would it take for Hamas to give its support to an international role? And, second, what is the role that the international community would want to play in the shadow of Hamas? The answer to the first question is easy: recognition.

The second is more difficult to answer. On the one hand, the international community does not want to engage with Hamas or to help it strengthen its grip on the Gaza Strip for as long as Islamist movement refuses to accept the principles of a two-state solution. Far from that, an international role is often presented as a tool to undermine Hamas' rule. Yet there is little the international community can do to achieve this goal. The suffering of the civilian population in Gaza hurts both Hamas and the international community almost equally, and therefore neither can leverage it. The siege certainly exhausts Hamas, but it will not make it kneel. Neither will further death and destruction.

Consequently, the international

community has only two options

when it comes to Gaza. One is to operate in the strip in cooperation with - or in the shadow of - the Islamic movement. The other is to gear its involvement toward bringing about a genuine Palestinian reconciliation.

The first option is self-explanatory: the international community can, most likely through the United Nations, launch a humanitarian relief and reconstruction operation under the gaze of Hamas leaders and with their blessing. The UN can become the interface between the world and Hamas; UN tradition and regulations allow its officials to engage with any force on the ground. This role can be expanded to include management of crossings and security-related matters, where the UN would serve as interface between Israeli and Hamas representatives (as it did on the Israeli-Lebanese border for some time). The downside of this option is that the international community would acquiesce to and indeed strengthen Hamas' rule over Gaza, albeit without politically recognizing Hamas.

The other option is to gear the international role toward - and gauge it upon - Palestinian reconciliation. In practice, this means that the international community would carry out four tasks.

First, it would consolidate its plan for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction. Second, it would agree with the concerned parties on possible assistance in running all of Gaza's crossings. Third, it would decide whether it would be prepared to deploy forces along Gaza's borders that would not only prevent smuggling but also provide the Palestinian population with protection against future Israeli attacks. And fourth, it would then present these plans as a heavy incentive package that would lubricate and compliment Egyptian efforts that are aimed at reconciling the two warring Palestinian factions. Such a role would give all concerned parties the needed assurances regarding their most important interests, namely security and political survival.

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere is international politics professor at the American University in Cairo and a former adviser to the Egyptian foreign minister and the United Nations Middle East envoy in Jerusalem. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter that publishes articles on Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs.


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