Sunday January 11, 2009
Gaza: A view from Cairo
WIDE ANGLE WITH HUZIR SULAIMAN
‘There is no upside to this for anyone.’
ASHRAF Swelam, 35, is a rising star in Egypt’s foreign policy establishment. A diplomat who served for four years at the Washington DC embassy, and then advised Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit on US relations for another three years, he is currently the deputy director-general of Egypt’s International Economic Forum.
I spoke to him on Wednesday to try to get a sense of how Israel’s recent bombardment and invasion of Gaza is perceived in Cairo.
Speaking in his personal capacity, he told me that Egypt’s official position had been to condemn the attacks, but at the same time to lay the blame on Hamas for ending the ceasefire that had existed for the last six months by firing rockets into Israeli territory, which gave Israel the excuse to carry out the attack.
“When Egypt’s position came under attack from Arab governments and media channels, saying that we were implicated – as though somehow we had done this in conjunction with Israel – we became much more vocal in laying the blame on Hamas, while condemning Israel for the atrocities.”
Were demonstrations that had taken place in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities likely to continue?
“Probably, because the pictures they are seeing every day (on Al-Jazeera, and other media) anger people, and they are taking it in a number of directions. Blaming Israel, of course, but also blaming their government.
“But now we are seen to be working with regional and international powers – Turkey, France, the United States – and there is an appreciation that there is effort to end this.
“The initiatives put forward by (Egypt) President (Hosni) Mubarak at his press conference with (French President Nicolas) Sarkozy were, first, to reach an immediate ceasefire; second, to allow for relief agencies and materials to enter Gaza immediately.
“Third, to work on a permanent ceasefire. Fourth, to work on reconciliation between Palestinian factions. We must reach understanding between Fatah and Hamas. Without this, you can forget a Palestinian State. Reconciliation will open the door for Egypt to reach an understanding on borders and crossings.”
(Fatah is the party of Palestine National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; it is secular, open to talks with Israel, and currently controls the West Bank. Hamas, in power in Gaza, is an Islamic party that has carried out a campaign of rocket attacks against southern Israel, and does not recognise the existence of the Jewish state. While the Fatah Government has been riddled with corruption allegations, Hamas has won credibility by providing essential social services. Tensions between the two factions run high.)
I asked him to explain the considerations behind sealing Egypt’s border with Gaza, which has escalated domestic tensions.
“The issue of the crossings is very delicate. Because of international agreements that govern them, it’s a technical and legal issue, but it’s ultimately highly politicised.
“There are two main crossings. One is at Rafah, and was controlled by Egypt and the Palestinian National Authority (PA) until Hamas took over. It’s not a border for commodities and trade. It’s only for people.
“Then there is Karem Abu Salem, which used to be controlled by Egypt, Israel, the PA, and European monitors, who later withdrew. (Since Israel closed Karem Abu Salem) things are not going in.
“Rafah is not designed for food supplies or commodities. There are no monitors there to open every box, to check for weapons or explosives. It’s not set up for big trucks to go through. This wasn’t even clear in Egyptian minds until the Foreign Minister explained. Now people can accept it and understand it.
“But the political underpinning is that it is the one place that Egypt and the Palestinians control without Israeli intervention.
“Allowing ambulances and wounded through remains an issue. You have the Egyptians saying the crossing is open, but Al-Jazeera saying it is open in a limited way.”
The opening of the border, arguably, would allow for humanitarian relief, and ease the state of siege in Gaza. But Swelam argues that it would put enormous pressure on Egypt.
“The issue is complicated for a number of reasons. The first is the issue of Egyptian sovereignty. Then there is the security of the Egyptian border.
“A few months ago we had 700,000 Palestinians crossing over from Gaza, knocking down the border barriers. It was a huge security concern.You have to contain them – but without shooting them. You have to control them so they remain only in Sinai, so they can buy food and gasoline, and then send them back.
“We had the experience of controlling Gaza until 1967. We don’t want to go back to that. One reason is from a security standpoint, and second, more importantly, it would mean the end of the Palestinian cause, the dream of Palestinian statehood.
“We see Palestinian factions playing politics with this; Hamas is making it impossible to reach the two state solution. What you will have is the Islamic situation in (Hamas-controlled) Gaza, and the secular state with Fatah (in the West Bank).”
I asked Swelam what he thought were Israel’s objectives, and whether they were achievable.
“Given the lessons of the 2006 Lebanon operation, Israel has (publicly) defined their goals in a very minimal way, with the total focus on the objective of weakening Hamas and eliminating the risk of fire coming from Palestine into south Israel. If they define it that way, there is no political objective.
“But if I were to put myself into the Israeli side and think of a political objective, one goal is to restore the ceasefire that was broken by Hamas but under more favourable terms for Israel.
“Another objective, which is unrealistic, is to end Hamas, and restore power to the PA (ie, Fatah) – but that’s unrealistic because they have to take out all the residents of Gaza, because you cannot tell who is Hamas and who is not.
“An even more ambitious goal is to get rid of the Gaza problem permanently. (Israeli President) Shimon Peres had a very famous quote where he says that he wakes up every night with a dream that Gaza has fallen into the sea.
“If they get rid of Gaza it ends their obligations as an occupying power under the protocols of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Then Gaza becomes dependent on neighbouring countries. Nobody is going to accept or allow that.
“There is no military operation without a political objective. Israel is going into elections in February. The Government wants to show the people that it is in control, that it can deal with the rocket attacks.”
I asked him what the crisis meant for the balance of power between Hamas and Fatah.
“If the objective was to weaken Hamas so that Fatah can take control (it’s going to fail).
“The longer the bombing continues, the more Fatah is being weakened, and Hamas is going to get bolder, and short of inflicting a serious blow to its leadership and political and military operations – which I don’t think is going to be an outcome of this operation – there is potential for them taking on Fatah not just in Gaza but in the West Bank itself.
“There was recently a statement by (Hamas leader) Khalid Mishaal calling for a third intifada (uprising) in the West Bank.
“The longer this goes on, the longer we fail to reach a solution in the Security Council, the longer that Mahmoud Abbas is seen to be not doing enough, the greater the chance that Hamas will become stronger and bolder, and take on Fatah in the West Bank, which would mean a lot of trouble for Palestinians and their cause, for Egypt, for Israel, and more.
“Both sides (Israel and Hamas) are thinking in a very short-sighted manner. They are acting on very immediate concerns rather than a long-term strategy of what they want to achieve.
“This has to come to an end soon. There is no upside to this for anyone.”
- Huzir Sulaiman writes for theatre, film, television, and newspapers.