What happens if the new rulers unseal the border to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip?
As the consequences of the Obama administration's muddled Middle East policies continue to play themselves out, Israel is once again finding itself faced with two converging threats to its national security: in Egypt, military rulers have announced that the previously sealed Rafah border between that country and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip will be opened; and the singing of a reconciliation agreement between the rival Hamas and Fatah Palestinian movements brokered by Egypt, and calling for the formation of a single government will be implemented.
When Hosni Mubarak was still in charge of Egypt, the border the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza--the only route into Gaza outside of Israeli territory--had remained largely closed in order to prevent wholesale weapons smuggling to Hamas and other Islamist organizations. The border had been sealed since 2006, when Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was kidnapped (he is still being held), and Hamas swept democratically-held elections. In 2007, a civil war broke out between Hamas and Fatah, and Hamas seized control of Gaza, ousting all elements of the pro-Western Palestinian Authority in the process. At that point, with cooperation from Egypt, Israel blockaded Gaza except for essential supplies. In 2008, thousands of Palestinians poured into Egypt when the Rafah border fence was blown up by Hamas militants, and bought goods that had been long denied them by the blockade. Egypt made no effort to stop the onslaught, but it shortly resealed the border, and in 2009 began building an underground wall to thwart the epidemic of tunnels constructed between the two countries to facilitate smuggling. The U.N estimates that up to 80 percent of Gaza's imports come through the tunnels.
Mubarak's government had long contended that an open border would strengthen Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, and undermine Egypt's security in the process. This is due to Hamas' relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political entity which was outlawed under the Mubarak regime, but is now actively seeking to become a major political player in Egypt's new government.
Under Mubarak, the blockade was not a hard policy. Two days a week, Egypt kept the border open to allow humanitarian supplies to pass into Gaza, and in June 2010, the border was opened completely by order of the former Egyptian president in response to Israel's stoppage of a six-ship flotilla aimed at breaking the blockade during which nine "peace activists" were killed aboard the Mavi Marmara.
Now, according to Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby, the border between Egypt and Gaza will be opened permanently within seven to ten days. Elaraby characterized the Mubarak regime's previous cooperation with Israel as "shameful," adding that Cairo wants to "relieve the Palestinians of their daily suffering." Egypt's Chief of Staff of armed forces, Sami Anan, went further. "Israel does not have the right to interfere in Egypt's decision to open the Rafah border. This is an Egyptian-Palestinian issue," he wrote on his Facebook page.
Israel is obviously troubled. An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, characterized the Jewish State as "very concerned about the situation in northern Sinai where Hamas has succeeded in building a dangerous military machine, despite Egyptian efforts to prevent that," and further speculating about "[W]hat power could they amass if Egypt was no longer acting to prevent that build up?" The Israeli official also noted the Egyptian government's attempts to foster a new relationship with Iran as well. "We are troubled..by the voices calling to annul the peace treaty, by the rapprochement between Egypt and Iran, and by the upgrading of relations between Egypt and Hamas. These developments potentially have strategic implications for Israel's national security."
Opening the border without any international supervision could be a breach of the 2005 agreement between Israel and Egypt brokered by the United States. That agreement called for the placing of 750 Egyptians to provide security along the so-called "Philadelphi Route." When Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, control was transferred to the European Border Assistance Mission Rafah (EUBAM). For the next two years the Rafah crossing was jointly patrolled by the Egyptian and the PLO, with EUBAM insuring compliance in Gaza. When the PLO was ousted from Gaza, Egypt and Israel agreed to close the Rafah crossing. Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian negotiator, told the Wall Street Journal that the "border deal is still in the works," adding that the five-year-old agreement "would not play a factor… because it is not in operation because of the Israeli intransigence and the Israeli siege."
Further complicating matters for Israel is the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal announced last Wednesday, reportedly brokered by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and General Intelligence Force. The agreement, hailed by both sides as "historic," was seen as a prelude to Palestinian intent to seek U.N. recognition of an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Under the deal, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would remain in power, but Palestinain Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Ismail Haniya, the prime minister of the Islamist Hamas movement in power in the Gaza Strip, would both resign as a result. "The reunification of the nation [is] needed to enable our people to decide their destiny and to establish an independent state on all territories occupied since 1967, with east Jerusalem as its capital," said Haniya.
As part of the agreement, Hamas will keep control of Gaza, and be left out of the interim, or "caretaker," government. "The people will be independents, technocrats, not affiliated with any factions," said Abbas. Presidential and legislative elections are scheduled to be held next year, and Egypt will send a security force to Gaza to "help settle and organize the internal security situation there," an Egyptian security official told Reuters. The new government will not be involved in any negotiations with Israel, with the PLO continuing its current role in any ongoing talks.
Israeli leaders condemned the development. Israel defense minister Ehud Barak called Hamas a "murderous terrorist organization that fires rockets on citizens and recently fired an anti-tank missile at a school bus of students. This is an organization with whom there is nothing to discuss, and therefore we will have no discourse with them." Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, told the Army Radio station that "hundreds of terrorists will flood the West Bank and therefore we need to prepare for a different situation." Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the Palestinian Authority that there "cannot be peace with both [Israel and Hamas] because Hamas wants to destroy Israel and says so openly. It shoots missiles at our cities, it fires anti-tank missiles at our children. I think that the idea of reconciliation shows the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and raises the question whether Hamas will take over Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] as it has taken over the Gaza Strip."
Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz announced that Israel will suspend a regular payment of 300 million shekels ($78.4 million) in taxes and customs fees to the Palestinian National Authority. "I think the burden of proof is on the Palestinians, to make it certain, to give us guarantees that money delivered by Israel is not going to the Hamas, is not going to a terrorist organisation, is not going to finance terror operations against Israeli citizens," he said.
In the United States, White House Chief of Staff William Daley said the Obama administration supports a unity deal as long as "it is on the terms that advance the cause of the peace,” Daley told the American Jewish Committee. “Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians. Any Palestinian government must renounce violence, it must abide by past agreements and it must recognize Israel's right to exist." However, he also emphasized the Obama administration's highly criticized attempt to tie any agreement to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. “For Israel this means stopping settlement growth, ending evictions and demolitions, dismantling outposts and improving access and movement within the West Bank,” he cautioned.
Despite Daley's remarks, members of Congress were skeptical. Reps. Kay Granger (R-Texas) and Nita Lowey (D-New York), the chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee sent a letter to PLO president Abbas. “Your current courses of action undermine the purposes and threaten the provision of United States assistance and support,” they wrote. “Our ability to support current and future aid would be severely threatened if you abandon direct negotiations with Israel and continue with your current efforts.” A bipartisan group of lawmakers was even more direct. “The Palestinian Authority has chosen an alliance with violence and extremism over the democratic values that Israel represents,” it said last Thursday, further warning that U.S. foreign aid would not continue to go to a government "that included a group on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations."
Thus, we are seeing one of the first major developments resulting from the so-called "Arab Spring" which has precipitated upheavals across the entire region. Undoubtedly, this latest deal is tied to the aforementioned re-establishment of relations between Egypt and Iran, facilitated by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, who had long represented the strongest chance to keep Islamist factions in Egypt, including those in Egypt's military, in check.
Iranian parliament member Qolam Reza Asadollahi outlined a future envisioned by such a development. "Iran and Egypt's closeness and establishment of a popular government in Saudi Arabia will change equations in the Middle-East and will leave no room for the influence and infiltration of the Zionist regime and the US," he told reporters on Sunday.
As of now, U.S. aid continues to flow to the PLO, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heide Bronke-Fulton announced last Thursday. Since 1994, total aid to the PLO has averaged $400 million per year, all in the hope of establishing a two-state solution.
A unity government between Hamas and the PLO in combination with an open border from Egypt into Gaza is a blueprint for disaster with regard to Israel's survival. It is perhaps the most emphatic realization to date of the Obama administration's naivete with respect to the unintended consequences of its efforts to push Hosni Mubarak out of power. If this is part of the new "roadmap to peace," perhaps the Obama administration needs to stop and ask for directions.
Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website JewishWorldReview.com.