INSS Insight No. 191, June 23, 2010
In the course of the public debate in Israel following the interception of the Gaza flotilla, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz proposed that Israel seal all crossings into Gaza entirely, while Egypt open the Rafah crossing that separates Egypt from the Gaza Strip. According to this proposal, all goods traveling into and out of Gaza would go through the Rafah crossing. The plan did not receive much attention in Israel because it seemed not practical, but the Egyptian government responded harshly, saying Israel could not shirk its responsibility for the Gaza Strip. This Egyptian response is highly indicative of the tangled reality of Israel-Egypt relations within the Israel-Egypt-Gaza triangle.
The episode reflects where the two countries converge in their attitudes to Hamas rule in Gaza and where they differ, and the undercurrents that influence their respective approaches to the problem. On the Israeli side, Katz's proposal reflects a prevalent attitude in Israel that was illustrated most fully in the unilateral disengagement from Gaza. According to this approach, the desired solution to the Gaza problem is Israel's total disengagement from Gaza – not only in the evacuation of the IDF and the settlements from Gaza, but in the severance of all contact, including the transfer of people and goods and the supply of electricity and water. The premise is that following a disengagement of this sort, Israel's responsibility for Gaza would expire. However, two hurdles must be overcome for this idea to be realized. The first concerns disengaging from Gaza without causing a humanitarian disaster that would be ascribed directly to Israel. The second concerns the question of how to disengage from Gaza entirely without its becoming an even more difficult security problem, given the loss of control over the flow of weapons into the area.
Supporters of the total disengagement approach understand that Egypt's role is central to these two questions. The alternative to any route via Israel for the overland transfer of goods in and out of Gaza is the Rafah crossing. The alternatives for transferring goods by air or sea are less suitable. Gaza has no real seaport and the loading ability of the existing marina is meager; moreover, there is no satisfactory way to supervise goods transferred thus and prevent the smuggling of weapons. As to the question of arms smuggling and security, it is ostensibly in Egypt's interest to prevent the smuggling of weapons via the Rafah crossing. However, this assumption is problematic, as from Israel's standpoint Egypt's response to the problem of weapons smuggling via tunnels is far from satisfactory. Moreover, even if this land smuggling were contained, a solution for goods transferred via sea and air is also necessary. Such a solution could hinge either on continuing the naval and air blockade or finding an international solution that would enable control at ports of departure. If the naval and air blockade continues, it would be difficult to persuade the international community that Israel no longer bears responsibility for Gaza.
In any case, this is not the prime obstacle to the realization of the total disengagement idea. Rather, the full implication is the understanding that Israel would be placing the Gazan baby on Egypt's doorstep. This approach presumably reflects the desire among many in Israel that Egypt assume – or more precisely, resume – full responsibility for Gaza. In other words, the goal is to return to the situation prior to the Six Day War in which the Egyptian military controlled the Gaza Strip and was responsible for security there.
Egypt's behavior following the flotilla incident may have suggested possible feasibility to Minister Katz's idea. It announced the continuous opening of the Rafah crossing with no time limitations. However, this was ultimately not the case. The crossing was opened only for the movement of people. Furthermore it is still doubtful whether Egypt will maintain this policy or return to the previous policy of opening the crossing for limited time periods only. Egypt's basic policy has not changed, and its testy response to Minister Katz's remarks was a solid indication of that. Ever since the implementation of the disengagement, Egypt has suspected that Israel – at the official echelon and not only among certain circles – would thrust Gaza into Cairo's lap. Thus Egypt expresses its strong opposition to the idea at every opportunity, and is not eager to receive this "poisoned apple." Its responses to concrete issues on the Gaza crossings regime are taken in accordance with this basic policy.
Egypt is indeed worried by developments in Gaza and derides the Hamas rule there, largely because in the eyes of the Egyptian regime, Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – the main political challenge to its rule. A Hamas government in territory adjoining Egypt is a problem for the regime; in addition, there are concerns over a spillover of concrete problems into Egyptian territory. This fear was realized with the exposure of a Hizbollah network in Egypt that smuggled weapons into Gaza and acted against the regime. However in the Egyptian view, the cost for assuming responsibility for the Gaza Strip is high, and in any case would not solve the problem as far as Egypt is concerned but only aggravate it and increase the likelihood of Gaza problems encroaching on Egypt.
For Egypt, the current situation is preferable, whereby Egypt cooperates with Israel to contain the Hamas regime in Gaza while Israel pays the price for this policy. Egypt only has to act intermittently to placate its domestic public opinion when it is aroused by the plight of the "Palestinian brothers" under the "siege." But this it can do at a relatively low price. For example, in the wake of the flotilla incident, which ignited passions on the Egyptian street, the decision was made to open the Rafah crossing probably temporarily.
The Egyptians feel that a more thorough solution to the problem of Gaza is possible only via political processes in the Palestinian Authority that weaken Hamas and strengthen the government in Ramallah. Thus since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, the Egyptians have been trying to mediate a reconciliation between the government in Ramallah and Hamas. They ensure that their mediation proposals will not be such that strengthen Hamas. This is the main reason that Hamas up to now has not accepted Egyptian proposals for a thawing of relations, which it views as a trap. Egyptian support for intra-Palestinian reconciliation is an additional element of dispute between Israel and Egypt. Israel sharply opposes such reconciliation and will refuse to cooperate with a Palestinian government that has Hamas as a partner.
Israel should understand: it can rely on Egypt's cooperation in containing and weakening Hamas rule in Gaza, but not at the price of full responsibility for the Gaza Strip. Any attempt by Israel to chart this course will detract from its ability to cooperate with Egypt and almost certainly fail. At the same time, it may be useful to examine whether Egypt's approach concerning the intra-Palestinian reconciliation process might also serve Israeli interests. Containment is a strategy that can be useful temporarily, but it does not bring about a sustainable stable situation.