Thursday, January 24, 2008

Gaza - Three Possible Scenarios

Last Thursday, Hamas demolished the Philadelphi Corridor --
but not the perception that Israel is still in charge


To this day, it's been hard for Israel to rid itself of the Gaza Strip and its 1.3 million Palestinian Arab inhabitants.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin tried to convince Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to take Gaza in 1979, when Israel turned over the Sinai Peninsula as part of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

No thanks, said Sadat, though Egypt had occupied the Strip from 1948 until the 1967 Six Day War.

Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was another attempt to solve our Gaza problem. The Palestinian Authority, under EU tutelage, was supposed to handle border control at Rafah. But the Europeans and "moderate" Palestinians abandoned their posts in the wake of Hamas's violent takeover of the Strip in the summer of 2007 (which, you'll recall, followed its earlier, electoral victory over Fatah in 2006).

All this undercut a pillar of Israel's disengagement strategy: to be done with Gaza. Jerusalem could not really disengage under an onslaught of flying bombs aimed at the Negev - even if every last Israeli citizen had been evacuated and the IDF had pulled out.

Those of us who supported disengagement must now admit that it created more problems for Israeli security and diplomacy than it solved.

AS FAR as I know, no pundit or intelligence agency forecast what happened on January 23. There was no advance warning that the Philadelphi Corridor would essentially disappear. At this writing, the division between Hamas-controlled Palestinian Arab Gaza and Egyptian Sinai has vanished. Or as a BBC correspondent put it: "There are so many Palestinians in Rafah that it is almost as if the town had been annexed by Gaza."

What had been a background headache for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his security chief Omar Suleiman is now a full-blown migraine.

Moreover, it now transpires that Hamas didn't just engineer the recent "humanitarian crisis" in Gaza, but also plotted demolishing the Philadelphi Corridor fence separating Egyptian from Palestinian Rafah.

For his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been shown (once again) to be a hapless bystander with little influence over what happens on the Palestinian street.

In the wake of Thursday's events, there are more questions than answers.

Among the people wondering what happens next are the clans who made their living transporting contraband and weapons via the tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor. Will they still have a business? How will they adapt to the new situation? What impact will the fall of the Philadelphi Corridor have on rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas? Will the Sinai-Negev border now become a new flashpoint?

And, conversely, does the corridor's collapse end the talk of Gaza being "a big prison" and of Israel's "occupation" continuing? Or will the media take the line adopted on Thursday by the Guardian that the crisis continues, and it's Israel's fault?

A ROSY SCENARIO argues that Gaza is at last no longer Israel's problem; it's the clear responsibility of Egypt and Hamas. Ranking Israeli officials told The New York Times that the events in Gaza may be "a blessing in disguise... some people in the Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister's Office are very happy with this. They are saying, 'At last, the disengagement is beginning to work.'"

In other words, now that the border is open, Hamas must begin worrying about the delivery of essential services and the population's welfare, something that would necessitate a genuine cease-fire with Israel and the end to cross-border attacks.

A gloomier scenario would argue that the fall of the Philadelphi Corridor may have dire consequences for the Mubarak regime itself; that the Islamist triumph and Cairo's sclerotic management of the developing crisis will embolden the Muslim Brotherhood, which, for all we pundits know, is right now making quiet inroads into the Egyptian military.

Further, on the internal Palestinian front, Hamas will seek to leverage its Gaza accomplishment by manipulating Abbas to end what's left of the EU and US embargo.

The Abbas approach of dealing with Israel - call it outward accommodation, the phased plan, whatever - has less credibility on the Palestinian street than ever.

The Fatah chief will either further adapt his policies to Hamas, or quit to make way for a newly released Marwan Barghouti.

MY HUNCH is that in the near-term, Egypt will try to pick up the pieces. It will attempt to control traffic between the Sinai and Egypt proper; it will bring Hamas and Fatah together, with the Islamists as the senior partners and the nationalists as conduits to the civilized world. Israeli decision makers, after due deliberation, will probably opt not to send the IDF back into Gaza to rebuild and take charge of the Philadelphi Corridor.

Fruitless negotiations on a "shelf agreement" between Israel and the PA will naturally continue because the Bush administration needs this illusion of momentum, the EU thinks the talks can actually produce something tangible, and Ehud Olmert has every incentive (if he survives the Winograd Commission's report later this week) to play along.

Hamas will reduce attacks on Israel even as it lays the groundwork to continue the struggle. It will, meantime, concentrate on rebuilding its network in the West Bank.

All this makes the post-Annapolis negotiations aimed at a theoretical, paper agreement (which, Israelis are told, will be implemented only if the Palestinians change their violent ways) an even more dangerous exercise in futility: Concessions to Abbas may yet be reaped by the Islamists who stand poised to take over Palestinian society.

Even if the Rafah barrier is reconstituted, how the bitter lemons of Hamas's latest achievement can be turned into lemonade is beyond me.

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