ElBaradei's proposal for Gaza

Foreign Policy got hold of Mohamed ElBaradei ahead of his return to Egypt and is set to soon publish a long interview, focusing both on Iran and his tenure at the IAEA and his impending return to Egypt (third week of February, FP says.) I can't wait to read the full thing once it's available, and urge you to read the excerpt they put on online. For now I'll focus on the part of the interview which deals with Egypt's policy towards Gaza, where ElBaradei makes an interesting (if off-the-cuff) policy proposal:

FPPresident Mubarak has been criticized harshly in Egypt and from outside, from some quarters, for his policy toward Gaza. Do you have any opinions on his policy toward Hamas?

ElBaradei: I don't really know the details about his relationship with Hamas. All I know about Gaza is that you have to distinguish between national security and humanitarian assistance. I would quote Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, who wrote that we are failing Gaza and that 1.5 million innocent civilians have been penalized because of the behavior of some of the Hamas members. To me this is not much different from what happened to Iraq before and after the war. You end up penalizing the innocent and the vulnerable -- the citizens. According to Patten, Gaza is only getting 31 of the "essential items" from the Israeli side, while they need thousands of items. They're not getting any construction materials. They received 41 truckloads of materials; the whole place is rubble.

The need to separate your politics from humanitarian needs and from protection of civilians is a principle that was established a hundred years ago with the Hague Convention and the Geneva Conventions. I feel that we are moving away from that in many ways. We talked about "crippling sanctions," for example. When you talk about "crippling sanctions," you have to understand that those who are being crippled are not the people in power -- it is the innocent civilians, the elderly, and the young. That is to me absolutely the wrong approach.

FP: Does that mean you would stop the construction of this underground wall that is currently being constructed between Egypt and Gaza?

ElBaradei: As I said, I don't really know the details, but if this [border area] has been used for smuggling, drugs, weapons, or extremists, then Egypt has the right to make sure it protects its security. But what Egypt can also do is use the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt to allow Gaza to have humanitarian assistance. For example, one idea I have is to create a free zone in the Egyptian part of Rafah [the border town]. I don't see why we can't have a free zone there where people from Gaza go and buy their own basic needs. So there is a difference between protecting national security, which no one questions, and providing humanitarian assistance.

I don't think it's entirely fair to say this is an ElBaradei policy platform, but it's certainly a very interesting suggestion and possible answer to the question of what kind of alternative policy Egypt could be pursuing towards Gaza — not the ideal policy, but rather a realistic policy considering the real security threat perception felt by Egypt (and not just the regime), the potential for radicalization Gaza represents, and regional constraints.

I'm not sure how literally ElBaradei is using the term free zone — i.e. whether he means a customs free zone, as Port Said was. If so the concept would run into the intricacies of the Oslo structure, most notably the Customs Union between Israel and the OPTs established under the Paris Protocol. This may seem like a technicality in light of the humanitarian crisis Gaza is facing, but it would certainly be a real concern to the Israelis and both Hamas and Fatah, with implications of separate economic systems for the West Bank and Gaza. In other words, peace-processors and officials of the concerned governments would have to do serious rethinking of the economic structure that currently exists in Israel/Palestine and that allows for the duty-free exports of Palestinians goods to Israel, which Palestinians rely upon to some extent. One could of course counter that Israel is not accepting Gazan exports for the moment, but it is a nonetheless an important shift in thinking.

There is another strategic implication for all concerned: such a plan would risk perpetuating the "three states for two peoples" direction the conflict is now taking, with Gaza becoming integrated into the Egyptian economy and the West Bank quite distinct from it. For Egypt, this is essentially what Israel would love to see: Gaza becoming Cairo's problem, not Tel Aviv's. It runs against the Egyptian argument thus far that Gaza is Israel's obligation under international law, and does not solve the concern about Hamas. 

Still, the argument could be made that Egypt could supply Gaza with the reconstruction material it needs, and perhaps act as an intermediary for Gaza's trade with the outside world (esp. the EU), without becoming economically implicated itself. There is certainly a good argument for a humanitarian opening of Rafah to grant Gazans access to the outside world, and allow goods in. It can be controlled in light of Egypt's concerns, and provide an alternative to tunnel smuggling. The devil will be in the details, though, and whether the PA and Israel (and even Hamas) would approve of such a plan, and what consequences there would be to going ahead with it even without, say, Israel's approval. 

Nonetheless, it's good to see ElBaradei not shying away from tackling this difficult issue. More Egyptians should be thinking about their country's responsibility in Rafah, and proposing serious and fully thought-out alternatives to the current policy. From what I've seen there's been much hand-wringing, but not many concrete proposals.

Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.