Dina Ezzat
December 18, 2009 - 1:00am

Egyptian officials have expressed unreserved concern over the slow pace of development on the Palestinian scene, especially with regards to Gaza. Egypt's main concern, they privately admit, is not borne of sympathy with the Palestinians but concerns the consequences of the current stalemate on Egyptian interests.

"Nothing seems to be moving forward. The reconciliation [of disputing Palestinian factions] is stalled and the prisoner swap deal is hampered. And [resumption of] the peace process itself looks unlikely for a while -- maybe a long while," said one Egyptian official who asked for his name to be withheld.

This means that the current de facto separation of Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank will continue. It also means the suspension of the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

"The bottom line is that Gaza will remain isolated from the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories, under continuous Israeli siege," explained the same official. "It also means that the Palestinian Authority will remain challenged, both internally, due to its failure to retain control over Gaza, and externally, due to the unlikelihood of a resumption of peace talks".

For Egypt the consequences are grave. The economically deprived and densely populated Gaza Strip is, say officials, already causing Cairo major headache.

National and international human rights organisations have repeatedly criticised Egypt for not opening the Rafah crossing that links Egypt to Gaza, while Israel and the US criticise Egypt for its alleged laxity in combating the smuggling of goods into Gaza through underground tunnels.

Now Egypt faces growing concern among activists and human rights organisations over the application of more stringent security measures along its border with Gaza, including installing more sensitive detection equipment capable of alerting the authorities to possible smuggling activities or tunnel construction.

If the separation between Gaza and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories extends into the long term, Israel could all too easily aggravate the siege imposed on Gaza. Then, Egyptian officials worry, it will fall on Cairo to assume responsibility for the citizens of Gaza.

"This is a nightmare we have to avoid. Do you know what it means to provide electricity for the entire Gaza Strip or to worry about the infiltration of militant activists into Egyptian territories? It would be an economic and security nightmare," says one senior state official. "And why should we spare Israel, the occupying power, from shouldering its responsibilities towards Gaza as stipulated by international law?"

Egypt is also worried over the possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority as a result of the current political failures.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he may quit in the next few months if the current political stalemate continues.

"Abbas seems to be seriously contemplating stepping down. The most recent announcement is not like his earlier," said an Egyptian diplomat who has served in Ramallah.

Should Abbas resign, Palestinian sources suggest the Palestinian Authority will itself fall into serious disrepair given the absence of any agreement on a successor. "This time it could be an internal Fatah fight and not just a Fatah- Hamas conflict," says one source.

The only alternative to this bleak scenario, Egyptian diplomats suggest, is to prompt serious political action. This, they say, is the essential aim of the foreign trip President Mubarak started in Paris on Sunday and which will take in Ankara.

In Paris, Mubarak discussed with his French counterpart possible ways to revive the peace process in view of the failure of the US to secure the freeze of illegal Israeli settlement construction in occupied Palestinian territories which had been demanded by Abbas as a condition to resume peace talks.

Egyptian and French diplomats have separately suggested the possibility of an international peace conference that could provide the Palestinians with international guarantees over the retrieval of occupied Palestinian land irrespective of whether it currently contains Israeli settlements. Both Egyptian and French diplomats, however, report American unease over such an international conference, especially if held under the auspices of the Union for the Mediterranean, jointly chaired by Egypt and France.

In France, Mubarak was also expected to ask President Nicolas Sarkozy to use his good offices with Israel to encourage a more positive engagement from the government of Binyamin Netanyahu in the prisoner swap deal. Egyptian officials say that the deal could be completed relatively easily if the Israeli government stops stalling.

"France is particularly concerned with this deal because Shalit has French citizenship and we believe that Sarkozy could help there," said an Egyptian diplomat.

The US has also been less than enthusiastic towards Egyptian mediation between Hamas and Fatah. In France and Turkey Mubarak is expected to garner support for Cairo's attempts to foster reconciliation.

"Turkey had offered to help with the reconciliation process and we don't mind cooperating on some aspects," the same diplomatic source said.

Mubarak also has an economic agenda to promote in France, Turkey and Denmark, say Egyptian officials, though the main goal is to induce some momentum into the Palestinian scene.

"It seems that the high hopes that many people had when Obama came to office are progressively evaporating. And it seems we are back to crisis management," the diplomat suggested.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017