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The War in Gaza: Egypt to pull the Chestnuts out of the Fire


n the 12th day of war in Gaza, when the consequences already screamed to the heavens—600 Palestinians dead and 3000 wounded, compared to 10 Israelis killed—Defense Minister Ehud Barak claimed as follows: "Today will determine the fate of the operation. If Condoleezza Rice succeeds in persuading the Egyptians to take on the task of preventing smuggling on the Philadelphia line [the border between Gaza and Egypt—YBE], it will be possible to reach a cease-fire" (Shimon Schiffer and Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Aharonot, Jan. 7, 2009).

But the day that "determined the fate of the operation" was in fact its first, Saturday, December 27, 2008, when the initial burst of fire, which lasted less than 5 minutes, killed more than 230 Palestinians. That day Gaza City became a heap of ruins, while anarchy filled the vacuum left by the collapsing Hamas regime.

In the 11 days since, the number of victims has tripled, and who can say how many will die before the operation's "goals" are achieved. By all estimates, Barak's included, a continuation of the campaign has no military justification. In order to back up his position on this point, Barak has enumerated Israel's achievements so far: Hamas did not believe that Israel would attack the regime's institutions, mosques, schools and apartments, among them UNRWA facilities; Hamas did not believe that after the Lebanon War, Israel would dare to commit ground forces; Hamas has no answer to the IDF's battle techniques; Gaza is cut in two; the smuggling tunnels at Rafah have been destroyed; the Hamas rockets have failed to cause great loss of life among Israeli civilians (Alex Fishman, Yedioth Aharonot, January 7, 2009).

The purposes of the operation, according to the official Israeli position, are two: to end the firing of rockets at Israel and the smuggling of arms through the tunnels at Rafah. There is, however, an additional goal, which pops up now and then "between the lines": to create a different reality in Gaza. While the two official purposes are attainable with relative ease, the third is complex, requiring more than a narrow military framework. This different reality would involve not only Israel and Hamas, but also the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Egypt. In it, Hamas would have to change its stripes, or to paraphrase Shimon Peres, would have to stop being Hamas, in the same way that the PLO, 15 years ago, stopped being the PLO.

Ironically, it was Israel's success in de-PLOing the PLO—by spilling Palestinian blood in the Lebanon War of 1982—that prepared the way for Hamas's entry into the political scene. Ariel Sharon, it will be remembered, was Defense Minister in that war. After the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla, an Israeli investigative commission removed him from the office and forbade him to occupy it ever again. His friend, journalist Uri Dan, had this to say: "Those who don't want Sharon as Defense Minister will get him as Prime Minister." In the same vein one can say: "Those who didn't want the Palestinians under the PLO leaders got them again under Hamas."

Egypt: Mediator by Duress

Israel and Hamas agree on one thing: mutual non-recognition. Israel does not wish to recognize Hamas—and not only because of that organization's character, but also and especially because Israel wants to advance the interests of its moderate Palestinian partner, Abu Mazen. As for Hamas, non-recognition of Israel has become an ideological principle. However, in the reality created by Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005, each depends on the other. Israel cannot do without Hamas, which rules the Strip, and Hamas cannot do without Israel, which controls the passages, i.e. controls the water, electricity, flour and every kilogram of goods that enters or leaves. This mutual dependence puts them in need of a mediator acceptable to both sides. Until now Egypt has performed the function. It ruled Gaza before the Israeli conquest in 1967, and it still presides over the single passage that communicates between Gaza and the external world: Rafah, looking toward Sinai.

Yet Egypt is no disinterested mediator where Gaza is concerned. Ever since Hamas expelled Fatah and took control over Gaza in June 2007, Egyptian and Israeli interests have coincided at certain points. In combating Israel and Fatah, Hamas is of no major bother to Egypt. The thing that Egypt can't stand, however, is Hamas's role as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, which in Egypt forms the principal opposition to the Mubarak regime. Until Hamas overthrew the PA in Gaza, Egypt tried to work with the Hamas leaders and make them more moderate; an Egyptian delegation was stationed permanently in the Strip. After the Hamas takeover, however, Egypt altered its policy, seeking the return of Abu Mazen to Gaza.

In addition, the overthrow that Hamas carried out in Gaza had the effect of intensifying Israel's blockade of the Strip. This blockade started in 2005 after Sharon carried out the unilateral disengagement. (The disengagement contributed significantly to the strengthening of Hamas and its eventual domination over Gaza.) In seeking ways to lighten the blockade, Hamas identified Egypt as a weak point: through Egypt, that is, it thought it could get Rafah opened. Hamas's technique for pressuring Egypt was simple, if not simple-minded: to shame Mubarak by presenting him as a collaborator with the Israeli blockade, as a traitor who turns his back on the suffering Palestinians. In tandem, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood used Hamas to chip away at Mubarak. The rockets on Sderot were meant to do more than pressure Israel; they were directed toward Cairo, in order to undermine the Egyptian regime.

In the latter half of 2008 there was an agreed-on period of calm (tahdiyya) between Israel and Hamas. As this arrangement approached its end, the director of Egypt's secret services, Omar Suleiman, and the representative of Israel's Defense Department, Amos Gil'ad, cooked up a prescription for renewal. This was to include a parallel channel of reconciliation-talks between the PA and Hamas. The fate of the tahdiyya, therefore, required an agreement between Abu Mazen and Hamas chairperson Khaled Mashal. Abu Mazen accepted the Egyptian draft, which was tilted in favor of the PA and Israel, but Hamas rejected it, declaring that the tahdiyya fails to serve its interests as long as the crossings are shut. Hamas demanded that they be opened under its supervision as a condition for continuing the tahdiyya. This was understood as a demand for recognition of its rule over Gaza. Israel's Operation Molten Lead, at that point, was just a matter of time.

The Return to Cairo

Hamas hoped to alter the Egyptian proposal by changing the mediator. Here Qatar and Turkey entered the picture, relying on their past achievements in the role. Qatar had provided the aegis for the Doha Agreement between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government; Turkey had brought about a renewal of talks between Syria and Israel. At this juncture, however, Egypt bared its teeth and leveled withering criticism at Hamas, while Saudi Arabia supported the same line through its political pundits. Israel, for its part, increased the pressure by taking ever more victims. The Qatar mediation fell through when the Emir denounced Israel through his principal weapon, Al Jazeera. Erdogan, the Turkish PM, could not resist the force of the demonstrations in his country and likewise bashed Israel, much to the latter's surprise.

For these reasons, Hamas's attempts to escape Egyptian mediation came to nothing. After 11 bloody days of fighting, a lower-ranking Hamas delegation was forced to return to Cairo and discuss a cease-fire. Today Egypt offers Hamas a return to the tahdiyya on condition that it accept Abu Mazen as a sovereign factor who will oversee the Rafah crossing along with a European force. It must also accept international supervision at the other crossings. If Hamas accepts this Egyptian position, that will signify a painful defeat. It will have to compromise with Abu Mazen and give up its exclusive rule over Gaza. For Israel this will mean that all three goals have been achieved, including the implicit one: a dramatic change of reality.

In the long run, though, Egypt will pay a high price for placing itself on a single front with Israel against Hamas. The Egyptian regime is a dictatorship. It forbids freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The massive workers' strikes for bread, which have shaken the country in recent years, highlight the weakness of the regime. Corrupt to the core, it has privatized the economy in favor of foreign companies and widened the already enormous gap between rich and poor. Mubarak's position vis-à-vis the Palestinians shows how afraid he is of his own people. The power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt does not depend on Hamas; it is nourished rather by broad opposition to Mubarak's regime.

A Different Reality

The Israeli attempt to change the reality in Gaza continues the policy it has pursued in the region ever since its founding in 1948. What was the purpose of the Sinai Campaign against Egypt in 1956, if not to overthrow the Nasser regime and thus change the regional reality? What was the purpose of the "Six Day War" in 1967, if not to establish Israel as the main regional power? What was the purpose of the Camp David Agreement, signed in 1978, if not to neutralize Egypt and remove her from the regional conflict? What was the purpose of the first Lebanon War in 1982, if not to eliminate the Palestinian problem by military means and thus, in Sharon's words, "to create a new regional order from Morocco to Turkey"? And what was the purpose of the Oslo Agreement of 1993, if not to neutralize the Palestinian struggle for independence? From war to war, from agreement to agreement, the reality becomes more dangerous.

The justification for all the wars is always the same: the Arabs. They are to blame for what Israel does and has done. But all the military campaigns, as well as the agreements that follow, carry the same pathogenic germ: Israel's insistence on preserving its superiority relative to its neighbors and, in particular, its persistent refusal to yield up the lands it conquered in 1967. In the present war, Israel has pushed its Egyptian partner into an awkward corner. Egypt knows that Israel could have prevented the war in Gaza. Israel could have withdrawn by agreement in 2005, instead of disengaging unilaterally. It could have done this as a step toward a comprehensive agreement, in the framework of which it would have dismantled all the settlements and reached peace with the PA. But Israel did the opposite. It pulled unilaterally out of Gaza and handed it to Hamas on a platter of fire. Today, in the West Bank, it refuses to dismantle even the outposts that it dubs illegal. It is far from ready to commit itself on a complete withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.

The endeavor to change the reality in Gaza will end in failure, as ever, at the price of more blood. Perhaps Hamas, in the end, will wave the white flag and accept the Egyptian draft. But what then? Abu Mazen will return to rule a Gaza that is devastated, in pain and mourning. Its poverty will continue, because its inhabitants will not be able to work in Israel. The connection to the West Bank will be delayed for "security reasons." In Ramallah, Abu Mazen's puppet regime will continue to hold sway, contained by the Separation Barrier, cut by hundreds of settlements and innumerable settler roads. The PLO will not be the same PLO, and maybe Hamas will not be the same Hamas. One thing, however, will remain unaltered: reality. The reality will not change, because Israel refuses to change.

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