The fallout from the terrorist attack near the border town of Eliat this past Thursday that killed eight Israelis, and the subsequent pursuit of the murderers by Israeli security forces into Egypt that resulted in a confrontation with Egyptian police, killing as many as five, continues to be felt across the region.
Hamas launched a deadly barrage of rockets that killed one civilian and wounded twenty over the weekend, while Israel launched a series of air strikes that Hamas claims killed fourteen Palestinians. As Israeli politicians call for stronger action against the terrorists, the UN and Egypt are working to broker a cease-fire with Hamas. The terrorists agreed late Sunday to restoring the peace, but, according to the Associated Press, more rocket fire targeting Israeli towns was launched after the cease-fire deadline, and Israeli planes continued their strikes deep into Gaza. Apparently, not all Hamas factions have accepted the cease-fire and the violence continues.
The incident has sparked the most serious diplomatic row between Israel and Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was forced out last February. It has also further isolated Israel at a time when the Palestinian Authority is preparing to ask the United Nations General Assembly to grant it statehood.
Further complicating matters is the growing insecurity along the Egyptian border as Palestinian infiltration into Gaza is now augmented by concerns about the Sinai crossing. The terrorists made their way from Gaza into the Negev Desert and then crossed into Israel. Also, there are concerns about the ability of the Egyptian army to keep weapons and explosives from making their way into Gaza since the Rafah border crossing was opened by the new Egyptian government. And there are concerns about how committed the Egyptian army is to securing the border as it seeks to respond to popular opinion that is rabidly anti-Israel.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said on Friday, “The border with Egypt is no longer a peaceful border and we need to change the way we treat it.” Egypt denies claims that the terrorists infiltrated into Israel from the Sinai, and also scoffs at the notion that the border security has weakened in the region since the fall of Mubarak. Israel thinks that the Egyptian army doesn’t see guarding the border with Israel as a top priority anymore. Indeed, attacks on the gas pipeline that supplies Israel and Jordan proves the Israeli’s point. No doubt, the government will be forced to address this additional threat to Israel by beefing up security along the 250 mile-long border.
The deaths of the Egyptian policemen who engaged Israeli forces in hot pursuit of the terrorists has angered the Egyptian people and government. The Egyptian government threatened to recall its ambassador to Israel if the Israelis didn’t apologize for the killings. Late Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a formal statement saying, “Israel is sorry for the deaths of Egyptian policemen during the attack along the Egyptian-Israeli border,” while a foreign ministry spokesman said in another statement that “Israel expresses deep regret” over the incident. Barak also called for a joint investigation of the incident with the Egyptian military.
The Egyptian cabinet refused to accept (http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-08-20/arab-league-to-meet-to-discuss-israeli-palestinian-violence.html) the apologies because it was “not in keeping with the magnitude of the incident and the state of Egyptian anger toward Israeli actions.“ But even though it appears Israel’s statements of regret was rejected, there are conflicting reports whether or not the Egyptian ambassador has been recalled. The Israelis claim they have received no information from the Egyptian government that any kind of rupture was imminent.
A statement issued after a second cabinet meeting on Saturday was much more provocative, saying in part, “Egyptian blood is not cheap and the government will not accept that Egyptian blood gets shed for nothing.”
The incident provided a ready pretext for venomous street demonstrations, as thousands of protesters gathered in front of the Israeli embassy. In an incident illustrative of the Egyptian military’s changed attitude toward Israel since the fall of Mubarak, a young man climbed to the roof of the Israeli embassy, tore down the Star of David flag and hoisted an Egyptian standard. The act electrified the crowd of demonstrators and, soon thereafter, the entire Arab world, as the news was spread via Twitter and other social media. The incident occurred despite hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police watching the demonstrators and supposedly guarding the embassy.
As the crowd cheered the act and fireworks went off, the symbolism could not be ignored; the Egyptian people, having thrown off the despotic yoke of the Mubarak regime, felt free to give full voice to their anti-Semitic sentiments without fear of repercussions. The burning of Israeli flags, the protesting in front of the embassy, and outward shows of animosity to the Jewish state, were unheard of in Mubarak’s time. And the military government, cognizant of deep-seated Egyptian Jew-hatred and what was seen as the weakness of the Mubarak regime in not being more hostile to Israel or the United States, feels obliged to allow the outward manifestations of this sentiment.
At the moment, it does not mean that the Egyptian government supports abrogating the Camp David Accords. But there was a clear warning in the words of the Egyptian Information Minister Osama Heikel who told state TV, “The assurance that Egypt is committed to the peace treaty with Israel … should be reciprocated by an equivalent commitment and an adjustment of Israeli statements and behavior regarding various issues between both countries.” Such statements should not give Israeli diplomats confidence that the peace treaty will survive if a government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood takes power after the elections later this year. One notable presidential candidate, former Arab League secretary Amr Moussa, tweeted, “Israel must be aware that the days when it kills our children without getting a strong, appropriate response are gone for ever.” Coming from a serious contender for the presidency, the statement borders on being a threat.
Indeed, the trouble with Egypt has isolated Israel more than ever. Statements of condemnation regarding the confrontation with Egyptian police were heard from the usual sources, including the Arab League and Iran. But strong statements condemning the incident also came from Jordan and Morocco – two countries who could usually be counted on to temper their expressions of disapproval when criticizing Israel. The increased isolation does Israel no good as it is expected that what is being called a “diplomatic intifada” will take place at the UN next month when the Palestinians ask the UN to recognize them as an independent state. While the US is expected to veto any resolution that makes it to the Security Council, it is expected that the non-binding vote in the General Assembly will be overwhelmingly in favor of the Palestinian motion.
The diplomatic row with Egypt reveals that both substance and atmospherics are changing in the Middle East, and especially the most important component of stability in the region: the peace between Israel and Egypt. While the treaty paper may still exist, much of what Israel took for granted when Hosni Mubarak was in power (the predictability and commitment of the Mubarak regime to peace), is quickly losing its footing. With the ground appearing to shift beneath their feet, the Israelis are coming to the realization that more than ever, they must depend on their own resources and people to achieve an elusive security that is continuously threatened by those who seek to exterminate them.
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