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.
I stayed away from blogging today because of family obligations and looming deadlines. But here's my new piece for Foreign Policy, looking at the fallout of the flotilla raid for Egypt.
The silver lining in the tragedy of Israel's brutal raid on the Free Gaza flotilla is a new urgency about lifting the blockade on Gaza and addressing the territory's humanitarian crisis. Calls for the blockade to be lifted have been made in the Arab world, in Europe and even, albeit more timidly, by the Obama administration. But Israel's siege is not the only thing that has been highlighted: the role of Egypt, Tel Aviv's silent partner in the blockade, has also been brought to the fore. This is an uncomfortable development for Egypt, which denies playing any role in the blockade even as it closed its border with Gaza at Rafah since the June, 2007 Hamas takeover. Even now, after quietly opening the Rafah border crossing to avoid popular outrage, the Egyptians are preventing an aid convoy led by the Alexandria Pharmacists Association from reaching the crossing. The renewed uproar over Rafah has the potential to destabilize Egypt, exponentially raising the cost of its participation in the Israeli-led, Quartet-endorsed blockade -- an outcome that the Egyptians will seek to avoid but is also a concern for their Arab allies, Israel and the Obama administration.
The Egyptians have for the past three years offered an elaborate explanation to deflect blame for their enforcing of the blockade -- despite the fact that the border, with a few exceptions for a few medical cases and hajj pilgrims, has remained closed since June 9, 2007. Whatever the legal merits of Egypt's position, domestically and regionally it lost the moral and political argument: there has been widespread outrage at what is essentially seen as Egyptian collaboration with Israel to punish Gazans for Hamas' actions. Its intentions have also been made clear by acts that can be best described as petty and vindictive, such as the treatment of last December's Viva Palestina convoy, which arrived at the southern Sinai port of Nuweiba only to be told to it could not disembark: it was forced to go to the northern Sinai port of al-Arish by heading back to Jordan, driving up to Syria, and then chartering a boat to al-Arish. Its reported intention of building an imposing wall across the border has been the subject of intense debate.
Why has Egypt taken such an unpopular hard line towards the Rafah crossing into Gaza? What will it do now?
Following up on the previous post about the standoff between pro-Palestinian activists from the Viva Palestina convoy and Egyptian security, the situation has escalated at the border with Palestinians clashing with Egyptian border guards, one of whom has been reported killed (the second in a week I think.) This is a bad development, for both sides, and Hamas is clearly flexing its muscle after the construction of the wall and the treatment of the solidarity campaigns. I wonder if Egypt has thought through pushing the Gazans against the wall (so to speak.)
Below is a report from Al Jazeera English.
On the upside, Viva Palestina has come up with a compromise with the Egyptian government and trucks have started to very slowly make their way to Gaza. Some trucks will have to go through Israel first, and may be delayed there for a while, or not get in altogether. There a good blog post at the New Internationalist by a member of the Viva Palestina convoy:
As the sun went down on another unpredictable day yesterday, we were all here in El-Arish port, people and vehicles reunited and aid all intact. After all the delays and extra costs, Gaza is only 40km away, but there were more unpleasant surprises in store for us, when the local authorities walked out of negotiations about which vehicles and aid they wanted to allow into Gaza. Instead of returning, they sent 2,000 uniformed riot cops and non-uniformed provocateurs to surround the port, blockading us in and then attacking those protesting at the gates with paving slabs and more.
So instead of driving to Gaza, the convoy spent the first half of the night in a pitched battle with Egyptian police, who used pepper spray, water cannon, rocks and metal batons against a couple of hundred of our volunteers. Middle-eastern TV broadcast five hours of live coverage of the battle into homes across the region, exposing still further the criminal role of Egypt in the siege of Gaza.
Fifty-five convoy members were wounded during the fighting, several of whom had to be taken to hospital for treatment, being beyond the scope of the ad hoc first aid station we set up within the port compound. Six brothers of various nationalities were arrested and held all night and most of today in a police van without food, water or toilet facilities.
This morning, Viva Palestina announced that negotiations at the highest level, between the Egyptian and Turkish prime ministers, had failed to persuade the Egyptians to let all our vehicles in, so cars and 4x4s requested by doctors and clinics will not be delivered to Gaza, but will instead be taken by Turkish drivers to refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. All the people and aid have been agreed to, however, so now we are just waiting for the army to open the gates and then we will make our way to Rafah and on into Gaza this evening.
Interesting to see the Turkish role here, considering Turkey's strong stance against Israel during and since the war as well as the extremely helpful and discreet role it is playing in inter-Palestinian negotiations. The Egyptians need Turkish goodwill at this point.
It's worth remembering that, on average, on 41 trucks have been going into Gaza since the war, compared to a normal traffic of thousands of trucks. You can get this statistic and others from a short but informative report by Oxfam on the impact of the blockade on reconstruction.
A note to explain Egypt's position on this matter, and why truck traffic is generally NOT allowed in through the Rafah crossing:
- Rafah is a passenger terminal, and the Egyptian government has always refused to upgrade it to a full commercial terminal. This has been the case even before last year's war and the current version of the blockade in place since June 2007, when Hamas took control of Gaza. Passenger traffic has also long been restricted, and moreso in recent years.
- Aside for a limited amount of humanitarian traffic, trucks usually have to go through the Kerem Shalom crossing (its Hebrew name) where the borders of Gaza, Egypt and Israel meet, a few kilometers south of Rafah. Currently this path is open but since the war the Israelis have severely slowed the processing of the trucks and restricted the type of good allowed in (including most construction materials.)
- Rafah could be turned into a full commercial terminal pretty easily and without much cost. Egypt has refused to do so because its position is that it cannot have a fully open border without a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that clearly delineates borders. Of course, this is rather ridiculous if humanitarian concerns were the priority, so what's behind Egypt's thinking? Aside from its current distaste for Hamas and US-Israeli pressure to maintain the blockade, it has an understandable fear that should Egypt become the main trading point with Gaza, which would not only work to facilitate Israel's illegal attempts to severe links between the West Bank and Gaza, but also de facto dump the problem of Gaza onto Egypt. This is known in certain Israeli circles as the "Gaza is Egypt solution." Egyptian officials insist Gaza is Israel's responsibility as an occupying power (which is correct under international law), and therefore will not develop its own links with the territory outside of a wider framework of Palestinian integration and clearer borders between Israel and Palestine.
- Of course this does not mean Egypt's hands are tied. It could continue making this argument while opening up border traffic to allow for the much needed humanitarian aid and construction materials, bypassing Israel altogether. It could also implement a system to allow greater passenger traffic. Some of this would take time for technical reasons (you need to set up the infrastructure to handle the added traffic). But this would have all sorts of consequences in terms of Israel's behavior towards Egypt, its potential actions in Gaza, the peace process, and Quartet attitudes towards Egypt. Cairo would have to be prepared for some regional turmoil, changes in regional attitudes, American anger and more unpredictable surprises. It's certainly not something Hosni Mubarak, whose best day is the day where nothing happens, would be prepared to do (never mind his ideological bearings).
- There is another technical element to Egypt's position on Rafah. In 2005, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA), which stipulates a PA presence at the border. This document is endorsed by the Quartet, and also provides for . Since June 2007, Egypt has insisted that the PA return to the Palestinian side of the border, which is controlled by Hamas, and has used the AMA to justify its participation in the blockade. For now, the AMA (although it was not signed by Egypt) is a core part of any resolution to this problem as seen by Egypt and the Middle East Quartet. Full or partial Palestinian reconciliation could see a deal to return the PA to the border, of course, but that dossier is also in Egyptian hands.
al-Masri al-Youm English has what may be the first close-up picture of the new wall being constructed at the border between Egypt and Gaza, revealed last week by Haaretz. The wall appears to consist of an underground portion (rumored to go as deep as 20 or 30 meters) as well as an above-ground portion, which has long existed (although it had been partially destroyed in the January 2008 breakthrough by Hamas, which allowed thousands of Palestinians to resupply in Sinai).
Note from the story accompanying the picture that smugglers (who took the above picture) don't seem to worried about the new wall:
Rafah--Smugglers along the border of Egypt and the Gaza Strip will continue moving goods through tunnels despite the recent construction of an underground wall.
"Let the Americans and the Israelis pay for the wall," Ismail*, a smuggler, told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "The tunnels are minimum 20 meters underground. We can make it 40 meters."
On another note, do bookmark al-Masri al-Youm English's site - with initial problems with their site now resolved, it's updated daily with tons of great material, such as this story about a Cairo synagogue that has been converted into an office for Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party.
MIDEAST: Egyptians Too Hit by Israeli Strikes Reporting on Egyptian victims of Israel's Gaza war, who are still awaiting compensation for their destroyed homes. Concludes: "In the last four months, Rafah has been transformed into a militarised zone, with civilians forbidden to walk the streets of the city - except the main street - after 10pm," said Gabr. "Between the frequent bombardments and new security restrictions, Rafah is fast on its way to becoming a ghost town."