In the early morning hours of Wednesday 23 January Hamas operatives detonated 17 explosive charges, blowing holes in the wall which marks the border between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and Egypt. The move was intended to break the blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza because of the continued use by Hamas of the area as a launching ground for terror attacks against Israeli civilians. In the hours that followed, Hamas members employed as policemen took control of the border area, and began to direct a stream of Palestinian civilians seeking to enter Sinai and obtain provisions. With Egyptian Border Guards taking no action, the militants brought a Caterpillar bulldozer to the site later in the morning, and began to extend the breaches in the border wall. According to UN estimates, around 350,000 Gazans traveled south into Sinai in the following days.[i] The destruction of the border wall represents a clear tactical success for Hamas, since in so doing, the movement has frustrated Israel’s hopes of applying pressure to cause the movement to refrain from using the Strip for further attacks on Israelis. The destruction of the wall also clearly has broader implications, which are currently being assessed, debated and analysed in Israel. This article will note the key events that have taken place in the days following the destruction of the wall, and will observe the emerging debate in Israel regarding the longer-term implications of this act, and over Israel’s optimal response.
Events subsequent to the destruction of the border wall
Initial Egyptian attempts to stem the flow of Palestinian civilians and re-seal the border were unsuccessful, as the Palestinians, aided and directed by Hamas militants, violently resisted their efforts. The Egyptians employed water cannon, dogs and human chains, but to no avail. Thirty-six Egyptian Border Policemen were hospitalised, including some in critical condition, as a result of the clashes.[ii] There have been reports of Hamas gunmen firing at positions of the Egyptian security forces, in order to frustrate their efforts to restore order. On Friday morning, 25 January, Hamas operatives defied the Egyptians by opening another hole in the border wall, through which the flow of Palestinian civilians continued. On Saturday, a second concerted attempt by the Egyptians to restore their control over the situation failed. Following their unsuccessful attempts at breaking the effective Hamas control of the border, the Egyptians withdrew from a number of their positions next to the border crossings in the town of Rafah. Egyptian security forces are now deployed in a series of checkpoints in the area to the south of the Gaza Strip, and are tasked with preventing the Palestinians from traveling further than the town of El Arish, about 20 miles from Gaza.[iii]
The Israeli authorities are concerned at the possibility of the unimpeded passage of Palestinian terrorists into Sinai. IDF forces are currently on heightened alert along the border. Tourist trails and sites close to the border have been closed, and the IDF Spokesman’s Office has issued a call to Israelis present in Sinai to return to Israel.[iv] Israel is maintaining its closure of all border crossings between Gaza and Israel, and Israeli spokesmen confirm that the closures will continue for the foreseeable future, although Israel will act to prevent any emergence of a serious humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
This remains the effective situation on the ground. The Egyptian authorities have failed to wrest control of the southern border crossing from Hamas. Palestinian civilian traffic across the border remains heavy. The crossings between Israel and Gaza remain sealed. It is likely that Egyptian control over the southern border crossing will be re-asserted in one form or other over the coming days.
Differing proposals and demands for the resolution of the situation emerged in the last days. The Egyptians initially demanded that Israel re-open the border crossings between Israel and Gaza – thus bringing to an end an Israeli strategy intended to place pressure on Hamas over Qassam attacks and other terror attacks while avoiding a large-scale ground operation into Gaza. The chance of this happening is close to zero. Israel, for its part, is demanding that Egypt take effective action to restore order at Rafah. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has demanded that control of the southern border be handed over to the PA security forces. There is scepticism, however, among Israelis, Egyptians and western sources regarding the ability of the PA security forces to perform this role. Since Hamas reject the idea, it is considered likely that the movement would simply act against any attempt by PA security forces to deploy in the south. Few observers consider that the result of such an attempt would differ from the events of June 2007, when Hamas routed PA and Fatah forces in Gaza and assumed control in the Strip.
Hamas wants to assume permanent control of the crossing itself, and has offered to coordinate this control with the Egyptian authorities. The Egyptian authorities are deeply suspicious of Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which constitutes the main opposition force to the Mubarak regime. Egypt is unlikely to accept a situation in which, due to Hamas control of the border, the Gaza Strip may become a refuge for Islamist fugitives from the Egyptian authorities. In common with Israel, Egypt’s main enemies are various manifestations of Islamism, and thus Egypt has a common interest in preventing Gaza from coming to form a heavily armed haven for jihad.
President Mubarak proposed that Hamas and Fatah representatives should meet in Cairo under Egyptian mediation in order to find a solution to the border issue. Hamas accepted this offer, while Chairman Abbas has rejected it, because it would imply PA recognition of the Hamas authorities in Gaza. At the time of writing, it appears likely that a Hamas delegation will visit Cairo on Wednesday. The Egyptians have already held talks with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.[v] Egyptian forces on Monday morning, 28 January, were reported to have ordered shops to close in towns adjoining Gaza, and are trying to encourage Gazans in Sinai to return home.
Israeli analysis of the latest events in Gaza has followed two distinct patterns. Firstly, there was clear anger among officials at the Egyptian failure to prevent the mass exodus of Palestinians through the broken wall. This failure was seen as the latest and most serious example of a clear Egyptian disregard for its responsibilities vis-à-vis Gaza. Israeli officials have long expressed concern at Egyptian failure to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza, since the Egyptian assumption of responsibility for the Philadelphi corridor in November 2005. Since the Hamas coup of June, 2007, and the subsequent departure of EU monitors, Egypt has been the sole controlling force of the southern exit from Gaza. The weak Egyptian response to the breaching of the wall, and the subsequent free passage of Palestinian civilians (and very probably terrorists and weaponry) in and out of Gaza was viewed as an aspect of this larger failure.[vi]
The events of the last days represent an achievement for Hamas. The Hamas authorities in Gaza responded to the closure of Gaza with the activating of a deft public relations campaign, centred in exaggerated claims of suffering and candlelit demonstrations. It is important to remember in this regard that the supply of electricity to Gaza from both the Israeli and Egyptian grids continued throughout, sufficient to satisfy three quarters of Gaza’s electricity needs. Hamas’s decision to divert available fuel for non-domestic use was the cause of power outages.
With the subsequent breaching of the southern border, it is likely that the movement will improve its standing among the civilian residents of Gaza. There had been recent reports of growing unrest among the population of Gaza, and declining support for Hamas in the Strip, due to the harsh conditions in the area resulting from its isolation since the coup of June 2007. The latest events will be used by Hamas as support for the movement’s central claim that militancy and rejectionism can produce better results than negotiation.
Nevertheless, in the last days, some Israeli analysts have discerned strategic advantages for Israel emerging from the latest events.[vii]
In the first place, the de facto drawing in of Egypt as a political player with growing responsibility for Gaza represents an undoubted gain for Israel. Since the disengagement of 2005, Israel has been keen to point out that it no longer holds responsibility for Gaza, while the Palestinians and the larger Arab world have maintained that Gaza remains under ‘occupation.’ The latest events serve to re-connect Gaza to some degree with Egypt, with no Israeli involvement or interference. This places Egypt in a difficult situation. Egypt wishes to maintain the notion of Gaza and its future being the responsibility of Israel and the Palestinians. However, given the de facto absence of Israeli control at the southern border, and the need to prevent chaos and control the entry and exit of Islamist forces in the area, Egypt is finding itself obliged, however reluctantly, to engage with the current Gaza reality. Some Israeli officials, such as Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilna’i, expressed the hope that the latest events could lead to a general transfer of responsibility for Gaza back to Egypt – including with regard to the provision of electricity and other amenities. With this broadening of responsibility, however, also comes a potential vulnerability. Israeli officials are currently worried that the continued failure of Egypt to close the border could render Israeli communities vulnerable to attack from terrorists in Sinai.
Secondly, the emergence of a genuinely autonomous, Hamas-controlled Gaza enables Israel and the international community to re-iterate its long-standing insistence that the movement conform to international norms. Israel does not negate on principle a Hamas role in the diplomatic process. Hamas must, however, in accordance with international norms, first commit to prior agreements, abandon violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Thus, the latest events could form an opportunity for Hamas, if it chooses to embrace it.
If it does not, Israel will find itself in an ongoing situation of conflict with an enemy entity. This is hardly an ideal situation, but the perception of Hamas-controlled Gaza as an autonomous and genuinely hostile entity is likely to blunt international criticism of Israel should determined military action against Hamas in the Strip – in the event of continued rocket attacks – become necessary at some stage in the future. The tone of media reports on the current situation in Gaza is already reflecting this.[viii]
A final – negative – aspect of the emergence of the Hamas semi-state in Gaza is its implication for the success of the current attempt to revive the peace process. The most significant question mark hanging over the current process is the de facto situation whereby 40% of the Palestinians of the territories live in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Those committed to the peace process need to explain just how real, substantive progress is possible given the continued flourishing of an entity which is completely opposed to the process ruling over nearly half of the Palestinians in the territories.
The revival of the peace process depends now on a series of decisions, none of which are in Israel’s hands to determine. Egypt must restore order on the southern border. Hamas must choose to conform to international norms. Fatah must find a way to cooperate with Hamas if it does this, or to challenge it effectively if it does not. In the absence of any of these decisions, it is likely that the events of the last week may seriously stall any hope of progress.
[i] Ali Waked, “Hundreds of thousands cross into Egypt from Gaza,” Ynetnews, 23 January 2008. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3497673,00.html
[ii] Amir Oren, “Israel demands that Egypt restore order at Gaza border,” Haaretz, 27 January 2008. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/948051.html
[iv] IDF Spokesperson’s Announcement, 24 January 2008.
[v] “Egypt agrees to Abbas control over Gaza border, officials say,” Ynetnews, 27 January 2008. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3499160,00.html
[vi] Alex Fishman, “The real Gaza disengagement,” Ynetnews, 24 January 2008. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3498142,00.html
[viii] See, for example, the Washington Post editorial of 24 January 2008 which held Hamas directly responsible for ‘blockading the peace process.’