by Stuart Reigeluth
The Gaza-Egypt border is one of the most controversial in the Middle East. Despite large coverage of the border breaching at the end of January 2008 by Hamas in Gaza, recent activities along the border have been completely eclipsed by the typical end-of-second-term U.S. presidency shuttle diplomacy to salvage the possibility of a Palestinian state.
Besides the fact that the end-of-2008 goal seems as distant in space as Gaza is from the West Bank (not to mention Jerusalem), the propounded two-state solution overlooks the reality that Hamas has assumed official control of the Gaza Strip and its border with Egypt. As Israel struggles to regain its veto over the Rafah crossing, international actors will have to re-evaluate their positions if they want to play a role in border management in Gaza.
After the violent takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Israel imposed a full closure of the Strip. Now, with the humanitarian foreign aid system maintaining about 80 percent of the population above the poverty line, it is evident that Hamas had prepared breaking down the border wall in order to offer temporary relief for its people.
Hamas began blow-torching the base of the thick metal wall built by Israel in 1982. The metal cutting took place over a couple of months during daylight, to not be seen after dark. Explosives were planted along the wall, which were detonated in the night of January 23, 2008. By the early hours of the morning, Palestinians were rushing into Egypt.
Egypt avoided more casualties than Gaza already incurs by allowing the Palestinians to get what provisions they could. Shortly thereafter, Egypt agreed with Hamas to ensure that the Palestinians returned and then mutually closed the border.
Under pressure from the United States, Egypt has been building a 3-meter high stone wall. Much more aesthetic than the rusted Israeli wall or the slabs of cement used in the West Bank, it is mainly symbolic and represents compliance with US demands, part of the previous US-backed security plan for Dahlan included a similar wall along the Palestinian side of the border.
But the new wall is also a national security issue for Egypt. Not wanting to compromise its political-economic ties with the United States by openly endorsing Hamas, Egypt also wants to thwart expansion of political Islam, namely the internal Muslim Brotherhood’s strengthening.
Egyptian officials as well as Mahmoud Zahhar, Hamas’ Foreign Minister who recently visited Egypt, are calling for the opening of the border. Talks on border management are underway.
Shortly after the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed the Agreement on Movement and Access in November 2005, stipulating for EU civilians to monitor the Palestinians operating the Rafah crossing in the form of EUBAM-Rafah (EU Border Assistance Mission).
EUBAM headquarters is located in Ashkelon, north of Gaza. Officially suspended in June 2007, EUBAM entered Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing to reach Rafah crossing. Israel Defence Forces (IDF) often did not permit EU monitors from entering due to “security” concerns. Also, Israel monitored both parties via real-time cameras connected to the Kerem Shalom crossing located a few kilometers away on the southeastern corner of Gaza. However, with Hamas’ take-over the cameras in the Rafah crossing terminal were dismantled to not permit external surveillance.
As a tenet of any future agreement, Hamas calls for “no foreign interference,” which makes sense in this scenario considering Rafah does not border Israel, rather it is split between Egypt and Gaza. EUBAM would need to relocate their headquarters if they were to engage in monitoring Rafah again.
Only 40 kilometers away from Rafah, relocation to Arish in the northern Sinai would also be logical. The distance to drive around the Gaza Strip from Ashkelon, as EUBAM did daily at the beginning of their mission, is approximately 100 km. Unlike Israel, Egypt does not want to be accused of impeding an EU civilian mission, and would willingly provide security.
As the situation stands now, Egypt is completing its new wall, the Rafah crossing point is being cleaned-up and an al-Qassam unit is patrolling the Philadelphi corridor on the Palestinian side of the border. The EUBAM mandate is ending and Hamas is expressing interest in an international monitoring group option to ensure the proper implementation of a ceasefire with Israel.
Possibly renewing national dialogue and a Palestinian coalition government, the Gaza Strip-elected government of Ismail Haniyyeh would envision cooperating and coordinating border-crossing management with Presidential Guards from Abbas’ West Bank emergency government, if and only if the Fatah-loyal members are “clean”.
This is an opportunity for the EU to play an important role in conflict management and border monitoring between Israel and Palestine