More on Gaza-Egypt Issues/ Lebanon Update
Feb 5, 2008 | AIJAC staff
February 5, 2007
Number 02/08 #02
As readers may be aware, there have been a series of developments related to the Sinai breakout by Hamas-led Gazans a week and a half ago. Egypt sealed the border to further crossings on Sunday, and said no similar breakouts would be tolerated. Yesterday, there were armed clashes at a border point, after Hamas operatives encouraged stone throwing at Egyptian police, leaving one Palestinian dead and dozens wounded on both sides. Finally, there was a suicide bombing in Dimona in southern Israel yesterday, which killed an elderly woman and wounded 8 other people. Initially, this was reported to be an infiltration by two Palestinians from Sinai, but current reports indicate they may have come from Hebron, in the West Bank.
This Update is devoted to additional analysis of the Gaza-Sinai situation, especially in light of these latest developments.
First up, Ehud Yaari, top Israeli journalist on Arab affairs, looks at Egypt’s complex reaction to the Sinai breakout, and the awkward position the Mubarak government has found itself forced to adopt. He also looks at the security problems the Gaza “Breakout” created for Egypt, and the nationalist reaction some Hamas behaviours prompted. He also says Israeli hopes that Cairo could become more directly involved in solving the Gaza problem, including by acting as a channel for humanitarian supplies, is something Egypt is strongly trying to avoid. For much more authoritative information on what is happening in Sinai and Cairo, CLICK HERE. A good additional analysis of Egypt’s Gaza dilemmas is here.
Further, the Dimona attack, whether from Sinai or not, highlighted for Israelis the security dangers created for Israel by the infiltration of Sinai by thousands of Hamas members, likely including many terrorist operatives. Our next piece, from Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff of Haaretz, explores these problems in some detail, including the several bombers and other armed terrorists reportedly arrested by Egyptian forces. They also have something to say about the implicit threat from Hamas to again stage a breakout if Egypt does not treat it as a partner in the border crossings, and how this affects Egypt’s relations with PA President Abbas. For all of their argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency says Palestinian terrorist groups smuggled in large amounts of heavy weaponry when the border was open. More reports on the security problems created are here and here. Meanwhile, Yaakov Katz of the Jerusalem Post calls for more effort to close remaining gaps in fences that allow terrorists to infiltrate both from the West Bank and Sinai.
Finally, on a different topic, the political crisis in Lebanon, where it has proven impossible to elect a new President and the danger of civil conflict continually looms, goes on. Here is the best general up to date survey of where things stand, noting significant recent developments, by David Schencker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. For this essential reading in order to understand the ongoing Lebanese crisis, CLICK HERE. Also commenting recently on the Lebanese political standoff has been the Los Angeles Times, Israeli academic expert Jonathan Spyers and counter-terror analyst Oliver Guitta.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Hamas praised the Dimona bombing as an “heroic act” while Palestinians in Gaza passed out sweets in celebration.
- An interview with Hamas’ former foreign minister Mahmoud Zahar. Meanwhile, in appealing for a role in the border crossings, a Hamas leader admits that “Gaza is not under [Israeli] occupation.”
- How former Israeli greenhouses were sold to Egyptian farmers, who prefer them to what they normally use, during the breakout.
- Israeli Labor leader Ehud Barak has decided that he will not pull his party out of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition following the publication of the Winograd Commission report, meaning the coalition will continue as is for now. As one would expect, Israeli punditry has been working overtime producing comment on Barak, Olmert, Winograd and the political situation, and some examples are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
- Comment on the significance of the killing of senior al-Qaeda commander Abu al-Laith al-Liby last week.
- The under-reported good news about Israel’s society and economy.
By Ehud Yaari
February 1, 2008
Egypt has been scrambling to formulate a new policy toward the Gaza Strip this week after being challenged by Hamas, which opened more than eleven crossings along the Israeli-constructed wall that serves as the Egypt-Gaza border. Up to 750,000 Palestinians have flooded the northeastern corner of the Sinai Peninsula since January 23, spending approximately $130 million in local markets, while tens of thousands of Egyptians took advantage of the lack of immigration, customs, and security controls to cross into Gaza. This massive movement of people caught many by surprise and may have serious ramifications for Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinians.
Huge crowds of Palestinians have been on a wild shopping spree in Egypt, cleaning out all the available merchandise, gas, and fuel at considerably cheaper prices than in Gaza. This flurry of activity has driven prices up amid growing resentment from the local population. It has also sparked numerous violent incidents, including Hamas gunmen firing at Egyptian border police in Rafah and skirmishes between Palestinians and local Bedouin tribesmen who became increasingly concerned about the “invasion” and hoped to chase the visitors away.
Among the masses flocking to Egypt were hundreds if not thousands of armed militiamen from Hamas and other factions, whose penetration into central and southern Sinai has led to a terrorism alert in the Israeli Negev. In addition, Egyptian security forces have detained 3,000 Palestinians for trying to reach the Suez Canal in order to cross into mainland Egypt. At the same time, Egyptian political activists — mainly leaders and cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood — hurried to Gaza to demonstrate their solidarity with Hamas while staging more then seventy rallies across Egypt protesting any reclosure of the border.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak initially ordered his troops to give way to the immense numbers of Palestinians crossing the border in order to prevent a bloodbath. Egyptian commanders were even instructed not to shoot back when thirty Egyptian soldiers were injured, some severely, by Hamas fire. The strategy later evolved into a phased containment, with the aim of forcing all of the Palestinians out, under threat of arrest, by February 2.
In phase one of this plan, Egyptian reinforcements sealed all the Suez Canal crossings — including al-Salam Bridge, the Hamdi Tunnel, and ferry shuttle services — to stop Palestinians from reaching the Delta Valley. This included Palestinians with valid visas and travel permits. Next, the Egyptians shut down the city of al-Arish, the capital of the North Sinai governorate, which had absorbed the early shockwaves of Palestinian crowds. After all the exits to al-Arish were blocked, security forces employed the same tactics in the town of Sheikh Zuwaid, attempting to lock the visitors into a small enclave near the Egyptian side of Rafah. Finally, by drastically cutting the number of supply trucks permitted to reach these areas, Egyptian authorities managed to keep the markets depleted, leading to a steady reduction in the number of Gazans. Still, it remains to be seen how many Palestinians will choose to remain in Egypt past the deadline.
From Sympathy to Criticism
Public opinion in Egypt — at least as reflected in the media — was quite supportive of Mubarak’s decision to avoid bloodshed and allow the Palestinians to break the Israeli siege. Yet, as several attempts to stop the “invasion” proved futile and more violent incidents occurred, bitter criticism of Hamas became widespread. Stories of Palestinian flags being raised over buildings in the Sinai and arrests of Gazans carrying explosives have contributed to a growing sense that Egypt’s sovereignty was violated and that Hamas was not respecting Egyptian national pride. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood was obliged to lower its profile on this issue in the past few days. For many Egyptians, Gaza now appears as a potential threat to the home front, since it can act as a secure base for the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamist groups.
The Rafah Problem
Mubarak has no appetite for an all-out conflict with Hamas. For him, the cost of a confrontation would be too high, in terms of both the domestic front and Egypt’s standing in the Arab world. Like Hamas, however, Cairo is also aware that there is no going back to the status quo. Therefore, its preferred course is to reseal the border with Hamas’s consent — as has been happening since January 26 — and concentrate on an agreement to keep the Rafah terminal open, thus providing Gaza with an outlet that is not under Israeli supervision. Cairo seems to have reached the conclusion that it cannot afford to remain a partner in the siege of Hamas anymore.
A deal over the terminal has been quite elusive, however. For one thing, Hamas insists on being an operational partner at the crossing point, while Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas wants his own presidential guards (Force 17) to have sole authority. Hamas also objects to the continued presence of European Union monitors at the terminal and to any Israeli role in determining passage. Egypt is currently trying to square a circle by advancing ideas for an arrangement that would grant Hamas and Israel a separate “invisible presence” at the facility; unsurprisingly, the plan the has not appealed to either side. With Abbas and Hamas leaders Khaled Mashal and Mahmoud Zahhar all negotiating with the Egyptians, there can be little expectation for a speedy resolution. Instead, an extended period of Egyptian-Hamas management of the crossing is likely.
In Israel, there are those who believe that Egypt is now compelled to play a larger role in Gaza, perhaps even to take responsibility for the territory simply as a means of self-defense (this sentiment is shared by several analysts in Washington and some Arab quarters). Cairo is not keen to be dragged into the Gaza quagmire, however. The Egyptian security delegation that had been stationed in Gaza left in June 2007 and has not returned. Egypt also refuses to adopt the World Bank proposal that would divert commercial traffic previously going through Israel to a new Rafah trade corridor terminating in the Sinai.
Indeed, it seems that Egypt has decided to stick to its own disengagement from Gaza, a policy implemented following Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel. Since then, Egypt has consistently reduced the scope of its ties with Gaza, refrained from maintaining an active pro-Egyptian political constituency there, cut down Palestinian traffic — including commerce, pilgrims, and students — and generally minimized direct involvement. The thrust of this policy has been to scale down Egypt’s exposure to Palestinians across the border.
Cairo’s current imperative is to contain Hamas and keep it focused on Israel. To achieve this goal, Mubarak wants to first sponsor a new round of dialogue between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. But for this to happen, Abbas would have to drop his preconditions for such negotiations. Second, Egypt seeks a de facto ceasefire, putting an end to Hamas’s Qassam rocket attacks and Israel’s frequent anti-Hamas operations in Gaza. Unfortunately, this arrangement would allow Hamas to further consolidate its power while maintaining a steady flow of arms through the Sinai. Only a failure of this game plan — or perhaps additional provocations by Hamas — would move Cairo to review its present stance.
Ehud Yaari is an Israel-based Lafer international fellow with The Washington Institute, an associate editor of the Jerusalem Report, and a Middle East commentator for Israel’s Channel Two television.
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By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz Correspondents
Despite the closure of the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on Sunday, it seemed that the next attack, kidnapping or suicide bombing carried out by a Palestinian group against Israelis, in Sinai or the southern Negev, was just a matter of time. With the border remaining completely open for 12 days, it is difficult to estimate the amount of arms and munitions that were brought into the Strip.
Hani and Rami Hamdan, the two brothers from Gaza caught on Saturday wearing explosive belts in Sinai by the Egyptian security forces, four kilometers west of Rafah, were not operating independently. Just a day earlier the Egyptians arrested 15 armed Palestinians in Sinai, 12 of whom were members of Hamas. Last week, another cell of five Palestinians was arrested near the Taba crossing, and explosive belts were found in their possession.
It is fair to assume that in spite of the Egyptian interest to cooperate with Israel in an effort to avert attacks, there are cells who have managed to evade them and hide in the broad expanses of Sinai. In Egypt, they believe that these cells are planning attacks in Sinai, but it also appears that some of them will try to penetrate into Israel along the 300 kilometers of the porous Israel-Sinai border. Advertisement
Some of the cells are linked with Hamas. Others are part of smaller Palestinian factions. What is clear is that Egypt is now dependent on the goodwill of the Islamic organization. If Hamas wishes, the border at Rafah will remain sealed. If it does not, thousands of Palestinians will be allowed once more to rush into Sinai.
Cairo now finds itself facing conflicting Palestinian pressure. Hamas is demanding to set up an orderly crossing through Rafah. If Cairo refuses, the Hamas policemen will ensure that Palestinians sneak into Sinai, like they did Sunday. Hamas wants larger supplies of fuel and electricity from Egypt. This is also something that Egypt will find it difficult to oppose, since the organization enjoys public support in Egypt, where it is regarded as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
However, if Egypt agrees to Hamas’ demands, it will come into conflict with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is opposed to any compromises with the Islamic organization, and to tensions with the Americans. Cooperation with Hamas in opening the Rafah crossing means a perpetuation of the Hamas rule in Gaza and a deepening of the rift between Fatahland in the West Bank and Hamastan in the Gaza Strip.
On the face of it, Israel may find some satisfaction at finally seeing Egypt drawn into the Gaza quagmire. But the situation is not a zero-sum game in which a loss for Cairo is an advantage for Jerusalem. Gaza has remained an Israeli problem.
The most troubling aspect of these dramatic developments is that they occured almost by accident and not as a result of an orderly decision-making process in Israel. Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided in mid-January to tighten the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip and close the crossings completely following a barrage of rocket attacks against Sderot.
The matter was not discussed in an orderly fashion, nor were the professional echelons consulted. The cabinet was nearly not part of the process, and the broadening of the cuts to fuel supplies was done through a broad interpretation of the Supreme Court decision.
For their part, Israeli intelligence missed the meaning of the preparations carried out by Hamas for breaching the border. On the eve of the breakout, the defense establishment in Israel described their policy on the blockade as “trial and error.” It seems that it was mostly error.
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By David Schenker
PolicyWatch #1336, January 31, 2008
Over the past week, Beirut has been rocked by violence yet again. On January 25, a Lebanese Internal Security Forces officer working with the UN investigation into Rafiq Hariri’s assassination was killed by a car bomb. And on January 27, seven Shiite antigovernment demonstrators were killed by the Lebanese army. These incidents come only two months after pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud vacated his office, leaving a power vacuum in his wake. Despite vigorous Arab League mediation efforts, the prospects for electing a replacement appear bleak. And with no end in sight, Lebanon’s security situation is likely to deteriorate further.
At issue in this latest confrontation between the “March 14” anti-Syrian majority and the Hizballah-led opposition is the political orientation and underlying loyalties of Lebanon’s president. The chief executive traditionally selects several cabinet ministers, approves the prime minister’s choice of the rest, and overlooks the ministerial policy statement that guides the government. In essence, the next president will either consolidate or end the 2005 Cedar Revolution — the pro-West independence movement that ended the twenty-nine-year Syrian occupation.
In early September 2007, the two-month presidential election process stalled over constitutional issues concerning how many parliamentarians constituted a legal quorum. The majority, which controlled 68 of the 127 seats, claimed that “half plus one” (65 votes) would be sufficient, while the minority argued that a two-thirds “consensus” vote was required. A tense standoff followed, with both sides vowing not to compromise.
In an effort to break the logjam, Arab League secretary-general Amr Mousa has been engaged for months in almost continuous shuttle diplomacy between Lebanon and Damascus. But to date, his hard work has achieved little. Ironically, the only real breakthrough came on November 28, 2007, a day after the Annapolis peace conference. In the weeks leading up to that summit, several top March 14 leaders had visited Washington to petition for U.S. pressure on Damascus to curtail its interference in the electoral process. When Syria wound up attending the summit, however, Beirut saw it as a sign that Washington had cut a deal. The next day, the March 14 coalition jettisoned its candidates of choice and agreed to the Arab League’s proposal that included a consensus candidate — current Lebanese Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Michel Suleiman.
Following that development, the Arab League shifted its mediation efforts toward reaching a deal on the cabinet’s composition. In Lebanon, two-thirds of the thirty-member cabinet is required to approve critical, or “national” government decisions. So the Arab League proposed a compromise in which no party would be able to impose or block a cabinet decision. In terms of numbers, the proposal specified that the March 14 bloc would select fourteen ministers, the opposition ten, and the new president six. The opposition rejected this arrangement because it had been demanding a “blocking third” of eleven ministers; recalibrating its demands, it made a counteroffer that called for each player to select ten ministers, believing that it would be able to influence the president’s selections. The current government rejected the proposal, however, arguing that such an arrangement would undercut its political power and essentially overturn the results of the 2005 elections.
Syria and Its Allies Withdraw Support for Suleiman
For months, the pro-Syrian opposition had been pushing General Suleiman as a compromise candidate. Earlier this month, however, its tone changed, raising doubts about its continued support for him. The opposition became concerned about how many cabinet seats Suleiman would be apportioned if elected, and whether he could be counted on to select ministers who would reliably vote with the opposition. In other words, Damascus and its Lebanese allies do not trust the general. According to Suleiman Franjiyeh, former cabinet minister and pro-Syrian head of the Marada Party, “General Michel Suleiman . . . cannot assure me of a [blocking] third.” The general’s reported phone call to Syrian president Bashar al-Asad suggests that he recognizes his candidacy is on a precipice. Indeed, it is rumored that the Syrians have now shifted their support to the presumably more reliable former foreign minister Faris Bouweiz.
Given the lack of trust in Suleiman, the opposition has abandoned its previous cabinet “compromise” offer — on January 17, Franjiyeh told the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar that it would not “accept a solution that doesn’t give it eleven ministers in the coming government.” Franjiyeh’s views, not surprisingly, echo those of Hizballah. Similarly, Syrian foreign minister Walid Moualem has argued that the only solution to the crisis is a national unity government that “reflects representation according to the [ratio of] parliamentary blocs” — a demand that goes well beyond giving the opposition a blocking third in the cabinet.
Mousa Under Attack
Despite these clearly articulated objections, Mousa has continued to press for Suleiman, in the process generating a great deal of criticism from the opposition. Earlier this month, Franjiyeh told the Kuwaiti daily al-Rai that Mousa’s actions show he “is not the secretary-general of the Arab League, but rather the foreign minister of Egypt.” And on January 21, the official Syrian daily Tishreen claimed that Mousa “cannot take any position that the U.S. administration does not give prior consent to, and therefore his initiative is destined to fail.”
For his part, Mousa has told the Arab League that Syria and Iran are responsible for the ongoing impasse. According to the Lebanese daily al-Nahar, Mousa’s most recent report to the Arab League Council of Ministers blames the two countries for scuttling a deal and extending the crisis. Mousa also predicted that Lebanon would not elect Suleiman as president during the next scheduled parliamentary session on February 11.
In the aftermath of Annapolis and the collapse of the March 14 position, President Bush made several statements criticizing Syrian and Iranian interference in the elections. He also joined the majority in backing — albeit tepidly — the Suleiman presidency, stating, “[I]f that’s what they want, that’s who we support.” But the White House statements have had little apparent effect. Since Annapolis, Lebanon has witnessed the assassination of its armed forces chief of operations, attacks on a U.S. embassy diplomatic convoy and the Irish contingent of UNIFIL, and the latest attack on the security officer assisting the Hariri investigation.
To best strengthen its Lebanese allies, Washington should pressure Damascus. The United States has all of the Arab League on its side except Libya and Syria. Capitalizing on Arab sentiment toward Syria, Washington should encourage Arab states to boycott — or at least downgrade representation — at the Arab Summit in Damascus in late March. More important, the administration must remain committed to, and be working to maintain international consensus in support of, the international Hariri tribunal.
Sadly, it may be too late for the pro-Western government of Lebanon to get a sympathetic president in office. But there is still time to save the March 14 coalition if Syria’s wings can be clipped. The key is an expedited international tribunal. If the Hariri tribunal proceeds like the eight-year Yugoslavia tribunal did during the 1990s, the March 14 bloc may not be in power long enough to benefit from its results, and any indictments and convictions of Syria’s pernicious role in Lebanon would at best stand as a Pyrrhic victory.
David Schenker is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute. From 2002 to 2006, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as country director for Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.