Israel, Gaza & Egypt: No Change

Global Politician- 07/02/2008

The response of Israeli officials to the latest events in Gaza may in essence be divided into two halves. The initial response was one of frustration at Egyptian unwillingness to restore order on the international border. The subsequent sense is that the latest Gaza events have served to clarify, rather than significantly alter, an already existing reality.

As the news began to come in of the destruction of the southern border wall separating Gaza from Egypt, Israeli and western officials demanded that Egypt take steps to re-assert its control. And as the exodus of Gazans began, there was widespread anger at Egypt for its failure to speedily impose its authority.

This failure was seen as of a piece with the generality of Egyptian behaviour since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in September, 2005. In November 2005, Israel, under US pressure, handed over control of the Philadelphi corridor to Egypt, which was to administer the area, in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and observed by an EU monitoring force. Events since this point are well known. Hamas won PA elections in January, 2006, and completed its seizure of power with a coup in June, 2007. This led to the departure of EU monitors from the border, and its sealing by Egypt.

Throughout this period, it has been a constant complaint on Israel’s part that the Egyptians have reacted half-heartedly and unwillingly to the ongoing Hamas project of smuggling large quantities of weaponry into Gaza. The initial response to the chaotic scenes on the border reflected this.

The Israeli security forces were subsequently placed on increased alert along Israel’s southern border. Israeli tourists were advised to return home from Sinai. There was fear that in the absence of any control, terrorist organisations would find it easy to exit Gaza, and prepare attacks on Israeli border communities.

As the days progressed, however, a new type of Israeli response began to manifest itself. The growing sense was that the latest Hamas action changed little of substance, but confirmed an already existing – if ultimately untenable – situation: since June 2007, Hamas-run Gaza has constituted a de facto hostile entity, administered by an organisation committed to Israel’s destruction.

Ineffectual Egyptian administration of the southern border has led to a large scale influx of weaponry into the Strip. The Hamas-led entity has sought to engage Israel in a roiling, ongoing war of attrition through the use of rocket attacks and support for acts of terror launched from Gaza.

For the moment, at least, it appears that the border is now to be administered through a joint effort by Hamas and the Egyptian security forces. Hamas will thus be engaged in partial control of an international frontier. But whatever the final arrangement, Israel will continue to demand that Egypt adequately police the crossings, and Egypt will continue to fail to do so. Hamas efforts to bring in weaponry will also continue, and its support for Qassam rocket attacks on western Negev communities will remain.

This process makes a major Israeli operation into Gaza, at some point in the future, a near inevitability.

Of course, the curious situation remains whereby Hamas-controlled Gaza still receives the greater part of its fuel and electricity supplies from the state to whose destruction it is committed. And the Israeli High Court today ruled that even the partial restrictions imposed on fuel supplies must now be lifted. But should Qassam rocket attacks begin again in earnest, Israel has made clear that the borders between itself and Hamas-run Gaza will be re-sealed, with only those provisions necessary to prevent a humanitarian crisis allowed to enter.

The situation between the state of Israel and the Islamist statelet of Gaza is by definition one of conflict. In the event of a major Hamas terror attack within Israel, it is likely to turn into open war, on the model of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. Gaza is ruled by an organisation committed to destroying Israel, and replacing it with a state based on Sharia Law. This was the case before Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008. It is the case after it. The events of the last days, from the Israeli point of view, have served largely to illustrate and reinforce this reality.

The final question is just how the continued existence of the Islamist statelet in Gaza can be reconciled with the hopes of the renewed peace process in which we were asked to believe following the Annapolis Conference. Peace processors of all nationalities – Israeli, Palestinian and western – have yet to offer a coherent answer. The anomalous situation in Gaza thus looks set to continue, until its contradictions play themselves out.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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