It’s the Empire, Stupid

The status of the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt remains unsettled.  Egypt is under heavy pressure from both Israel and the United States to reestablish control and seal the border.  In an uncharacteristically blunt criticism of the regime of President Husni Mubarak, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on February 13 that, “we have not been satisfied with Egypt’s efforts” to control smuggling of weapons into Gaza through the tunnels under the border.  Voices in and around the Israeli government have been beating the drums for a full-fledged invasion and reoccupation of the Gaza Strip as the only solution to this and other security problems.  Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has, so far, forcefully rejected this course of action, to the great relief of the Mubarak regime.  It is not clear what long-term benefit Israel could achieve from such an action.

During the 12 days from January 23 to February 4 when the prison walls surrounding the Gaza Strip since the early 1990s were breached, some Egyptians and the small Palestinian community in Cairo tried to send supplies to al-‘Arish or to travel there to demonstrate support.  The Egyptian government tried to block all organized collective expressions of solidarity.

Consequently, the most visible expression of Egyptian support for the plight of the people of Gaza was Egyptian midfielder Muhammad Abu Trika displaying a tee-shirt emblazoned with the words “Sympathize with Gaza” in English and Arabic after he scored a goal in Egypt’s 3-0 victory over Sudan in the African Nations Cup football (soccer) championship.  His display of solidarity earned Abu Trika wild popular acclaim and a yellow card.  Revealing under-shirts with images or messages has been banned by FIFA since 2002.  Egypt ultimately won the African Nations Cup for the second time in a row.  Abu Trika, already a national hero, scored the sole goal in the final 1-0 match against Cameroon, a symbolic vindication of his act of solidarity.

The moment of Palestinian freedom passed quickly.  On February 4 Egyptian security forces sealed the border, preventing even Palestinians in North Sinai and Egyptians in the Gaza Strip from returning to their “proper” side of the line.  In a scene reminiscent of the first Palestinian intifada against the Israeli occupation, the front pages of the Egyptian and Israeli press featured photos of Palestinians throwing stones at Egyptian troops who were trying to prevent them from entering Egypt and keep them penned up in the Gaza Strip.  Armed Hamas militiamen on the scene did not intervene to prevent the stone throwing, which eventually provoked an exchange of live fire between Egyptian and Hamas forces.  One Palestinian man was killed and 6 were wounded; 38 Egyptians were wounded.

This embarrassing border clash between “Arab brothers” occurred in the wake of a Hamas suicide bomb attack in Dimona, which killed an Israeli woman and wounded 11 others.  Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded by announcing that a security barrier — similar to the one Israel has constructed largely inside the West Bank — would be built along the border with Egypt by 2010.

Egyptian officials believe that both Israel and Hamas are trying to destabilize its border.  “Anyone who breaches the border will have their legs broken,” declared Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit on February 7.  On board an airplane en route to the United Arab Emirates, President Mubarak told newspaper editors, “Egypt’s borders are sacred and we will not allow any assault against them.”  The liberal daily al-Masri al-Yawm reported this pronouncement accompanied by a photo of Egyptian soldiers in full riot gear facing the border.

The Egyptian government needs no pressure from the United States and Israel to act forcefully to seal the border and to undermine the popularity and influence that Hamas gained by blowing up the wall separating Gaza from Egypt and presiding over Gazans’ brief days of freedom.  The government believes — most probably correctly — that Hamas and the Muslim Brothers, the largest Islamist organization in Egypt and the strongest opposition to the regime, collaborated in breaching the border.  The Muslim Brothers’ political standing rose due to their active support for the opening of the border, just as Hamas’s popularity soared.

In reaction, Egyptian security forces resumed the campaign of arrests of Muslim Brothers leaders that began in December 2006.  At least 90 activists in several provinces have been arrested in the last week in an effort to disrupt the organization’s campaign for the municipal elections scheduled in April.  Forty of the group’s leaders are now on trial before a military court after a civil court dismissed the trumped up charges against them last year.  “Peace mom” Cindy Sheehan was recently in Cairo with a foreign delegation to observe the trial. But they were not permitted to do so.

How does all of this relate to the now stalemated talks between Israel and the Palestinian authority to implement the plan developed at the November 2007 Annapolis conference?

Egypt favors a return to the 2005 agreement between the Palestinian Authority and the European Union.  This permits it to strike a blow against Hamas and its Muslim Brother allies simply by calling for implementing an existing international agreement.  According to this agreement, which was brokered by Condoleezza Rice, the EU would supervise Palestinian Authority control of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip to ensure that no weapons or other contraband slip through.  That arrangement was precarious even before Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council election and formed a new Palestinian Authority cabinet.  Since then Israel closed the border more often than it allowed it to be open.

Israel, with full support from the United States, has insisted that it will not accept any Hamas participation in controlling the Rafah crossing.  Hamas has asserted that its electoral victory and its practical control of the Gaza Strip since its June 2007 coup against President Mahmoud Abbas entitle it to play some role.  Abbas is interested in undermining Hamas. But he cannot appear to be doing so in open collaboration with Israel.

The United States and its regional allies — Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority — are aligned against Hamas under the slogan that isolating Hamas is the prerequisite for any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.  This is the local version of the Bush administration’s interminable global war on terror.  Like the global version, it is oblivious to realities on the ground.  Whether the United States and its allies like it or not, Hamas won a relatively free and fair election and retains significant support in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.  This support cannot be nullified by the force of arms.  An attempt to do so will prolong and deepen the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and increase the suffering of both peoples.

Even if Hamas were not a factor, Israel’s announcement that it will expand settlements in the Jerusalem area immediately following the Annapolis conference and the unannounced expansion of settlements in the Ramallah area and the Jordan Valley (Ha-Aretz, Feb. 20) indicate that it is not prepared to consider terms for a peace agreement acceptable to any Palestinian party.  Hamas’s firing of Qassam rockets and use of suicide bombs targeting civilians is both a crime and a political problem.  But focusing on this to the exclusion of all other factors allows the United States and Israel to postpone consideration of a Palestinian-Israeli final status agreement indefinitely.  Israeli and American jubilation over the assassination of Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus further underscores the Bush administration’s regional strategy: war against the Islamic radicals in alliance with Israel; the Arabs may either join the imperial caravan or be left behind.

Joel Beinin
February 20, 2008

Lift the Gaza Blockade: Call on Congress to Speak Up and Join Us in the Streets!

Joel Beinin is currently Director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo while he is on temporary leave from his position as History Professor at Stanford University.  Beinin is also a past president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.  This analysis was first distributed by the mailing list of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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