On Egypt's Gaza policy

After the recent cabinet change, Egypt now has a Prime Minister and a Minister of Foreign Affairs who argue against Egypt's role in the Gaza blockade. Nabil al-Arabi, the new FM, in particular is on record has criticizing that policy on the grounds of international humanitarian law. Will we see a change in the policy anytime soon?

In some sense, it already has changed. Palestinian officials from Hamas have been allowed to travel from Rafah. The border crossing has also been re-opened after a month-long shutdown following January 25, although it is still only taking 300 people a day. But fundamentally, the official position is the same for now. It's based on a legal reality that the siege of Gaza is Israel's responsibility, since it is the occupying power, as well as more convoluted legalism that the border cannot fully be reopened until Gaza is part of an independent Palestinian state. The real reasons for Egypt's participation in the blockade were a mixture of anti-Hamas sentiment, legitimate concern that Egypt could be held responsible for Hamas' actions by Israel, American and Israeli pressure on Cairo, and a fear that the Israelis were maneuvering to dump the Gaza problem onto Egypt's lap.

It's true that Israel is chiefly responsible for Gaza, which is still legally considered occupied territory despite the 2005 withdrawal, since it controls the borders and makes repeated incursions. Gaza cannot be considered separately from the rest of Palestinian territory. But it's also true that Egypt has a moral responsibility to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza, as well as encourage the international community to pressure Israel into lifting the siege. There's a reasonable middle-ground: set up a system for orderly passage of people at Rafah, and provide the water and electricity Gazans need. The passage of goods is more problematic, since it would involve a review of customs agreements that the Palestinians have with Israel (perhaps not so much of an issue considering the state of Israel-Palestine relations and the Israelis' unwillingness to make peace) as well as tempt Israel into closing its crossings to Gaza on the ground that Gaza can simply trade through Egypt. There are no easy solutions here, and perhaps the answer lays more in a dramatic escalation in Egypt-Israel relations over this issue (which I'm not sure would necessarily work to improve the conditions for Gazans.)

But perhaps a first start is to make an announcement that would make it clear that Egypt finds the current Gaza set up unacceptable, breaks with the ridiculous Quartet positions, and calls for the abandonment of the international community's current approach to Israel-Palestine. It might not achieve much, but at least it would send a clear message that Cairo won't back business as usual with the Israelis.