Edition 29 Volume 2 - July 29, 2024

The Egyptian initiative in Gaza

Facilitating Palestinian rule - by  Edward S. Walker, Jr.

It seems that Egypt has made a legitimate and sincere offer of help.

Gaza for the Gazans - by  Khaled Diab

In effect, instead of living under Israeli occupation, they would be part of an Egyptian "protectorate", as they were prior to the 1967 war.

A Jordanian perspective - by  Hassan A. Barari

Israel's weakness is at the negotiation table rather than on the battlefield. Unfortunately, many Palestinian factions have failed to see this logic.

A risky undertaking - by  Muriel Asseburg

Egypt's conditions are unlikely to be fulfilled.

Facilitating Palestinian rule
by Edward S. Walker, Jr.

According to polls, almost half of Palestinians oppose Egypt’s offer of a security role in Gaza, fearing it would only serve Israeli interests. Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki is reported to have said, "We see considerable Palestinian concern that what Israel is proposing would leave them in a suffocating Gaza ghetto while it consolidates its main settlement enterprise in the West Bank."

Even if that were the case, how would it differ from the present state of affairs? The Palestinians may be right not to take Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s rhetoric at face value, but if they believe that Sharon is posturing or not serious, then they really don’t know him. Those in the Israeli political structure, among Americans who have known him, and in the administration in the White House and State Department are all convinced that he is serious. And if proof were needed, Sharon’s willingness to abandon his right wing, to sacrifice his majority in the Knesset, and to make common cause with the Labor Party should be proof enough. Sharon will withdraw the settlements from Gaza, and the Palestinians will have to deal with that reality.

The Palestinians have two choices. They can allow the existing situation in Gaza of violence, crime in the streets, and internal fighting to deteriorate further. In this case the scenario described by Shikaki will become fact. Or they can begin the process of building the institutions of a Palestinian state as the model for the West Bank, an undertaking that could win solid international and US backing. This will not happen unless: 1) the al Aqsa Brigade’s apparent demands regarding corruption in the Palestinian Authority are met; 2) Arafat is willing to back off and let a reform process take place; 3) the Palestinian leadership agrees to restructure Palestinian security forces and bring them under the control of the PA’s cabinet; 4) external donors terminate direct funding of armed factions and leaders and channel all assistance through transparent international and PA institutions; and 5) the PA gets the support and help it needs to stabilize the internal security situation. That is where Egypt comes in.

It is instructive to see which organizations are most opposed to an Egyptian role in helping the Palestinians develop an effective internal security apparatus. Not surprisingly, the objections have come from Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and the Popular and Democratic Fronts, among other armed factions. It is clear that these parties fear an effective security force which could control the lawlessness (and funds generated thereby) on the streets, prevent any faction from shooting its way into power, and guarantee the fairness of a democratic electoral process which would represent the will of the people. Perhaps these factions are afraid that they will lose the power to force their will and their vision of Palestine on others.

It is not at all clear that a majority in Gaza wants a theocracy, which would appear to be the model Hamas wants for the state, nor is it clear that Gazans want a radical government modeled after the PIJ philosophy, tilting against the windmill of a one-state solution to the continuing detriment of the Palestinian population. The Palestinians must see that if there is any prospect for a one-state solution it could only be born of two states, uniting for common and agreed purposes, and developing over time, with the full consent of both populations.

The Egyptians do not relish the idea of a collapsed Gaza on their borders; it would be an invitation for terrorists who just might turn their attention toward Egypt. So it seems that Egypt has made a legitimate and sincere offer of help. This is not, after all, Nasser’s Egypt, and this is not pre-1967 Gaza, nor will it ever be again. Egypt has offered a limited role, one that can strengthen the Palestinian Authority, restore security in Gaza, and prevent its dissolution into "a suffocating Gaza ghetto" on the verge of a civil war.

The Palestinians are right to worry about what happens next in the West Bank. The World Court opinion on the fence may be momentarily gratifying, but advisory opinions will not change the wall/fence by one meter or make it any less likely to be completed. The reality is that the fence will be completed, and then we may have several Palestinian "ghettos". But what happens in those "ghettos" will make all the difference as to whether they remain ghettos for the foreseeable future or become the starting point for building a viable and agreed final settlement.

That is the premise of the Bush administration’s policy and, according to officials in the White House and State Department, the United States is willing to put its resources and political power on the line to make sure that this is the path taken in the future. The choice, however, will come down to the Palestinians themselves. It is time to retire the old saying that "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."-Published 29/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Edward S. Walker, Jr. is president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. He is a former United States ambassador to Egypt and Israel.

Gaza for the Gazans
by Khaled Diab

Gaza is ablaze. Israel is cementing the psychological barriers separating the two peoples into a physical one, and the current intifada is grinding on toward its fourth bloody anniversary. Faced with such a grim situation, it is hardly surprising that people seeking peace will grasp at any ray of hope. The latest Egyptian diplomatic initiative to revive the peace process is sustained by a belief that the art of the possible will pave the way for the wishful.

In war and in peace, Egypt has been a central player in the Arab-Israel conflict. But under the militarist unilateralism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and United States President George W. Bush, Egypt has seen its status as a broker wither. With this lost prestige, anger at home at the Israeli occupation and the US invasion of Iraq, a faltering economy, frustration at the lack of political reform, and unease at having left the Palestinians behind when it forged a separate peace, Cairo desperately needs a breakthrough. In a bid to hasten Sharon's declared Gaza pullout, Egyptian officials have committed themselves to underwriting stability in the Strip.

One of the key problems with this latest drive is that--like previous "confidence building" plans--it is designed to respond more to Israeli security concerns than to any vision of a long-term resolution of this complex, multi-faceted conflict. What's more, Israel has thus far rejected Egypt's requirements for a complete withdrawal (including from the famous Philadelphi road on the border), a full settlement freeze, and ending its assassination policy--so the initiative may never come to pass. Nonetheless, it is useful here to explore the implications of a potential Egyptian presence.

First, Gaza Palestinians would still not be getting self-rule. In effect, instead of living under Israeli occupation, they would be part of an Egyptian "protectorate", as they were prior to the 1967 war. Of course, for many Palestinians, being under the authority of fellow Arabs would seem preferable to being under Israeli rule. However, there are certain dangers inherent to an Egyptian presence in Gaza. Even though bold Egyptian diplomacy paved the way for the slow and painful process of reconciliation, the peace that currently exists between Egypt and Sharon's Israel is cool and tense at best. In such a context, it is probably a good thing that a huge swath of demilitarized desert in the Sinai separates the region's two most powerful armies.

Were Egypt to take control of Gaza, this buffer zone would effectively be removed, bringing Egyptian troops--albeit a small force--into frontline contact with the Israeli military. Realizing the risks involved, Egyptian diplomats have been trying to extract ceasefire pledges from the more extreme Palestinian factions, and Cairo has indicated that it will not enter Gaza without an Israeli promise to cease all military operations.

However, even if Egypt were to receive such pledges from both sides, truces in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are by no means set in stone. On the ground, this might leave Cairo with certain unpleasant choices to make. In order to ensure that nothing rocked the boat with its tense neighbor, it might feel compelled to employ--like the discredited Palestinian Authority before it--heavy-handed tactics with the Palestinian population. This would breed resentment among the residents of Gaza toward a country they had perceived as an ally.

A grimmer risk is that a relatively small spark may set off the whole tinderbox and draw Egypt and Israel into a direct and bloody conflict, after more than three decades of peace. For instance, a series of suicide bombers might get through into Israel. This could lead the Israeli government to talk tough to appease public outrage and go in to "weed out" those responsible. If Israel were to send in helicopter gun ships, or even F16s, how would Egyptian forces on the ground react? What kind of a chain reaction would an Israeli incursion set off?

But even assuming that Egyptian guardianship of Gaza brought about a semblance of stability and an official end to the second intifada there, this would be short-lived. On the political front, the Egyptian initiative sets a dangerous precedent in that it implicitly encourages Sharon to move the goalposts of a final settlement into the realm of unsustainability. This means that the initiative would, at best, offer only temporary reprieve until the Palestinians discovered that, in return for the stretch of arid Gaza real estate, they are expected to give up most of their claim to the West Bank, defeating their half-century struggle for a homeland. The symbolically and emotionally important issues of Jerusalem and the millions of refugees who have grown up in camps across the Middle East would also be left in perpetual limbo.

In Egypt, popular wisdom has it that breaking a fast on only an onion leaves you feeling hungry and cheated. Feeling just so short-changed, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank might feel compelled to launch a third intifada, and the cycle of attack and counterattack, of tit for tat, would return. After more than 55 years of conflict, Palestinians and Israelis deserve not just any solution, but a just resolution to their differences. This may lie either in a binational state or a fair two-state solution. Ariel Sharon's plans for Gaza, and Egypt's offer to underwrite them, do not come close to meeting this standard.

But if Israel wishes to pull out unilaterally, it should leave the Gaza Strip's control in the hands of its people. Some observers point to the recent descent toward anarchy in the Palestinian territories as a reason to support the Egyptian initiative and postpone Palestinian self-rule. However, as the recent protests against PA corruption and cronyism demonstrate, the Palestinian people can manage their own affairs. With the PA discredited and its infrastructure destroyed by the Israelis, who should run Gaza? Before any pullout occurs, internationally organized and independently monitored elections should be held. The winner of those elections should be recognized as the interim leader of Gaza by Israel and the international community and be supported in his or her quest to rebuild a functioning society.-Published 29/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian journalist based in Brussels who writes about the Middle East, Europe, and current affairs as well as fiction. Prior to his arrival in Belgium, he was a Reuters correspondent in Cairo.

A Jordanian perspective
by Hassan A. Barari

Amid lack of a unified vision among Palestinian factions on how to contend with the Israeli occupation and Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Egypt's latest initiative is both timely and prudent. It should be noted that Egypt's move does not come, as many would like to argue, to put an end to the intifada. Its intervention comes to save the Palestinians from a defeat at the hands of Israel.

Egypt believes that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan is a foregone conclusion. Hence, Egypt is concerned that Hamas could take over the Strip and embolden the Islamic movements in Egypt. Officials in Egypt intend to play a leading role in securing some kind of tranquility in Gaza, to prevent chaos from reigning in the Strip. Thus Egypt has been trying to obtain an Israeli commitment not to attack Gaza after the withdrawal. To this end, Cairo has sought to get the international community to join its efforts.

Equally important, Egypt has a clear understanding of how to deal with Israel. It learned the hard way how to liberate its occupied territories. In the late 1970s, then-President Anwar Sadat came to the conclusion that Israel's weakness is at the negotiation table rather than on the battlefield. Unfortunately, many Palestinian factions have failed to see this logic. Belief in the utility of force in dealing with Israel is widespread. With such thinking prevailing among Gazans, Egypt should be seen as a positive third party intervening to balance the conduct of Palestinian militias. Indeed, the Palestinians are not expected to gain independence and liberation without the sincere efforts of key countries, chief among them Egypt. The fact that Egypt is willing, even keen on intervening in Gaza is a positive step that should be encouraged rather than fought.

Egypt's initiative is consistent with President Hosni Mubarak's strategy of making Sharon's plan part of the shelved roadmap. Egypt has sought the Palestinians' consent with some success. Despite odd voices coming from some on the fringe of Palestinian politics, Egypt has managed to get the Palestinians to agree in principle to its strategy.

Egypt's role in shoring up Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been indispensable. Loss of this role would badly affect the Palestinian leadership. Nonetheless, after years of dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli track, the Egyptian leadership has come to the conclusion that to avert unnecessary Palestinians losses, Arafat must be sidelined. Indeed, this is the conclusion of many Arabs, but those who voice it in public are a minority. Egypt recently made some demands from Arafat, the realization of which would help the Palestinian cause yet weaken Arafat within the Palestinian body politic. Egypt made it clear to Arafat that he is expected to unite the plethora of security agencies under the control of the Ministry of Interior. It also demanded that Arafat bestow more prerogatives on the prime minister. That Egypt has formally asked Arafat to concede some of his prerogatives is a marked change in Egyptian foreign policy vis-a-vis the Palestinian cause.

It seems that there is no internal force that can ditch or sideline Arafat. Time and again, he has proved a master tactician. But Arafat should understand the motive behind Egypt's move and act accordingly, or he will run the risk of losing the Egyptian umbrella. His maneuvering room is increasingly narrow. The time has come for him to make a brave decision that transcends personal considerations and helps the Palestinian cause. Getting entrenched in the mantra that he is the elected leader and that the Israelis are not prone to peace will hardly help the Palestinian cause. It would be a sign of greatness to come out in public and admit that his leadership, though legitimate, will not help the realization of the Palestinian national dream for which thousands of Palestinians have paid their lives.

Since Arafat is unlikely to take such a step, external pressure to bring about positive change is needed. Many Gazans welcome the Egyptian plan to guarantee the security and stability that they have long sought.

Perhaps it is naive to say that once Arafat met the Egyptian demands, matters would improve. A quandary would still lie with Israel, where we witness the difficulty Sharon has had in selling his reduced plan. Nevertheless, sidelining Arafat would cause a sea change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and could even bring about changes within Israel. Sharon and like-minded politicians would thus be exposed to the whole world while concurrently losing their standing within Israel. Changing the Palestinian power structure would remove a stumbling block in the path of rehabilitating the Palestinians politically, and clear the path for restarting the peace process. Therefore, the Egyptian initiative is a positive step.-Published 29/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Hassan A. Barari is professor of Middle East studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the author of "Israelism: Arab Scholarship on Israel, A Critical Assessment" (London: Ithaca, 2024)

A risky undertaking
by Muriel Asseburg

The positive Egyptian response to an Israeli request for support in the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip has been praised by the international community. According to the Israeli government, the Egyptian role should be confined to Palestinian security sector reform, training and oversight of Palestinian security personnel, as well as controlling the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza.

Egypt has made its involvement conditional on the fulfillment of some factors essential for success. It expects both sides to refrain from violence against each other. It expects Israel to withdraw completely from the Gaza Strip, including from the Philadelphi road, to guarantee abstention from all military operations in the evacuated territories, and to finally establish safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank. Egypt expects the Palestinian Authority to restructure its complex security apparatus into three branches under the interior minister’s authority and to empower the Palestinian prime minister substantially.

However, these conditions are unlikely to be fulfilled. The Israeli government has announced that it will keep control of all land and maritime borders of the Gaza Strip as well as the airspace, and it has asserted its right to carry out military operations in all evacuated areas. And while the Palestinian president has finally announced the consolidation of the security forces into three branches and reshuffled senior security positions, these overdue moves have triggered violent protests by members of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza as well as a series of resignations: from the prime minister (since withdrawn) to heads of security services. The protests indicate not only the degree to which the PA has already lost the monopoly of power and its capability to effectively provide for security on the ground, but also the urge for a much more comprehensive reform, clean leadership, and more inclusive policies if legitimacy is to be regained.

Due to Egypt's interest in deescalating the situation on its northeastern border, preventing a takeover by Islamist forces in Gaza, and deflecting American pressure for reform, it is doubtful whether Egypt will indeed insist on all conditions being fulfilled before getting substantially involved. While the Palestinian leadership has welcomed an Egyptian security role in Gaza, Palestinian factions have clearly voiced their opposition, as they are afraid of Egyptian and (in the West Bank) Jordanian involvement in the security sector that will effectively limit the PA’s competencies and endanger the sovereignty of a future Palestinian state.

The Egyptian security role in Gaza therefore involves considerable risks. First, it holds the danger of Palestinian-Egyptian tensions, Israeli-Egyptian tensions, and last but not least of dragging Egypt into the conflict. Second, it is very doubtful whether the Egyptian security forces are the most suitable for training their Palestinian counterparts in anti-terrorism measures that not only are effective but also compatible with international human rights standards. We should definitely not support the emergence of another repressive and authoritarian regime in Gaza with Egyptian surveillance, repeating the mistakes of the Oslo period--and laying the foundations for the next intifada to follow.

The European Union should support Ariel Sharon’s efforts to evacuate settlements and troops from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, albeit in the context of a process leading to a viable two-state solution as stipulated in the roadmap. Egypt surely can help (as it does already) by mediating the national dialogue and ceasefire talks among the Palestinian factions, and it can act as a go-between in the withdrawal preparations of Israelis and Palestinians. But we should not have illusions that the Egyptian government has the capacity and power to create the complex conditions necessary for a successful withdrawal and a resumption of the peace process, much less the reconstruction of evacuated areas and the launching of economic development--for which access to international markets and work permits in Israel are essential (at least in the short- to medium-term).

On top of the economic aspects, three main issues will determine the Palestinian population’s support for the withdrawal: internal security, broad legitimacy of the political leadership, and the prospect of a solution to the conflict and the end of occupation. Thus, security cannot only be interpreted as Israel’s security, to be realized through counter-terrorism measures. Security also entails implementing law and order and ending the reign of gangs and militias in parts of the Palestinian territories. That, however, requires the restoration of a monopoly of power as well as transparency and accountability of the security services. It also means involving the young guard of Fateh, moderate Islamists, and other opposition groups in the political process and in sharing responsibilities--thus giving the PA the legitimacy it needs to enforce law and order. The international community should therefore support the national dialogue and urge the PA to hold elections, particularly at the local level, in the near future.

At the same time, international support for the Palestinian security apparatus is crucial for breaking out of the cycle of violence. The security force training already underway is not sufficient. There is also a need for an international presence on the ground. A key task for such a military presence--together with the PA--would be to disarm the population and act against groups that continue to engage in attacks against Israel. Only if this is done successfully will Israel cease to carry out preventive or retaliatory military operations. Such a presence would be welcomed by a majority of the Palestinians, provided it is perceived as a means for ending the occupation and not as a tool for its continuation. This, however, will not be the case as long as nothing more than a permanent interim situation is on the horizon. Thus Egyptian support cannot be a substitute for a substantial and sustained involvement of the international community ensuring a successful withdrawal and reinvigorating a peace process aimed at a negotiated conflict settlement.-Published 29/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Muriel Asseburg is a senior researcher in the Middle East Department of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.

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