Should Israel encourage Egyptian responsibility for Gaza?

Gershon Baskin

[Baskin is co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research & Information]

Even after the disengagement from Gaza, Israel remained legally
responsible for the welfare of the 1.5 million Palestinians there.
International law considered the Gaza Strip to be under Israeli occupation
even after every single settler and soldier left.

The reason for Israel's continued legal responsibility is mainly based on the fact that Israel
sealed all of Gaza's borders to the outside world and prevented the
opening of a sea or airport in Gaza for the use of the Palestinians.
Israel furthermore continues to control Gaza's territorial water and

After the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit the Israeli control of
Gaza was made even harsher. Following the Hamas coup d'état in mid-June
2007 Israel's squeeze on Gaza translated into a policy of complete

Because of the continued illegal launching of rockets and mortars at
Israel most of the international community did little more than voice
concern over the Israeli policies and fears of an emerging humanitarian
crises in Gaza. For the people of Gaza, those policies became intolerable.
That led to the decision of the Hamas leadership to bring down the walls
on the Rafah border and to create new facts on the ground.

FOR THE time being, the status quo of complete Israeli domination and
control over Gaza has been broken by the Hamas. Returning to the previous
situation before the forced border opening is probably impossible. Hamas
has been strengthened by its bold actions against the Israeli
strangulation which was aimed at weakening Hamas.

Neither Israel nor Egypt was prepared for the new reality. Hundreds of
thousands of Gazans paraded into Sinai in search of food, cigarettes,
medical supplies and probably weapons, explosives and other illegal and
dangerous materials. The Egyptian government could do nothing in the face
of pictures of suffering of Palestinians including Israeli military raids
into Gaza with large numbers of fatalities.

The Egyptian government had to face the reality of Arab public opinion at home and throughout the region
which would have exploded on the streets of Cairo had the Egyptian police
in Sinai prevented with force the onslaught of the Palestinian masses from
flowing freely into Sinai.

From Israel's point of view, the opening of the Rafah border without any
supervision or monitoring was describde by some experts as the doomsday
scenario. Israel's fear of terrorist cells trained in Iran and more
sophisticated weapons moving freely into Gaza may have happened and there
was no Israeli response.

Israel's decision not to respond with force was
based on the bilateral relations with Egypt and perhaps with Jordan as
well, which probably would have had to respond dramatically if Israel
violated Egypt sovereignty.

This new reality, which is far from desirable from an Israeli point of
view, could be turned around in Israel's favor. Recognizing that the
smuggling of people, money and weapons have been taking place under the
Gaza-Egypt border for years, even when Israel fully occupied Gaza, the new
reality brings that smuggling above ground and adds the possibility that
Egypt will station border inspectors on the Egyptian side of Rafah.

Furthermore, it is possible to renegotiate the agreement with the European
Union on the stationing of EU monitors on the border. It could be possible
to move those EU monitors to the Egyptian side of the border, which would
remove any Israeli control over the monitors' movement and enable at least
some form of third-party supervision over the border.

THE MOST obvious advantage for Israel, and probably for Gaza as well, is
if the new arrangements enable the Gaza border to remain open and allow
Israel to wash its hand of Gaza entirely. Israel would be able to claim
that it is no longer responsible for the welfare of the Palestinian people
of Gaza. If they need fuel, food, water, medical supplies or treatment --
go to Egypt. If they want to export agricultural produce to Europe -- use
al Arish or Port Said. If they want to import raw materials for factories,
import them via Egypt -- not via Israel.

Egypt would probably not be pleased with such an Israeli declaration.
Until now Egypt has said that the Rafah border has remained closed due to
Israeli insistence. That could easily change and Egypt would be "freed"
from the Israeli demand to keep the border closed.

Egypt is still unlikely to agree to the new arrangement. It does not
appear that Egypt would be anxious to take over responsibility for the
welfare of Gaza's population. Egypt has been taking a strong position in
the days following the forced opening of the border, now using force
against those Gazans still trying to get into Sinai illegally.

Nonetheless, Egypt's displeasure does not have to impact on Israel's
decision on this matter. Egypt could easily appeal to the Arab League for
assistance, financial or otherwise to care for the needs of Gaza. There is
no need for Israel to continue to be held responsible for the welfare of
the people of Gaza.

The change of the status quo would impact on other important issues as
well. One such change would effect the Israeli control over the
Palestinian population registry. The regime in Gaza would be able to issue
identity cards and passports without any regard to current agreements on
this issue; this of course impacts on immigration policies. It is doubtful
that any significant number of Palestinian refugees would freely choose to
immigrate to Gaza and it is equally doubtful that the Gazan economy could
support a wave of new immigration.

While taking these bold steps Israel could offer the Palestinians in Gaza
a cease-fire arrangement that the Hamas leadership has been trying to
achieve without success. Israel has until now objected to offering Hamas a
cease-fire for fear that it would strengthen the Hamas regime. That is no
longer an issue in light of the clear victory of Hamas in the eyes of the
Gazan public because of the forced opening of the Rafah border.

It is now possible to reduce the violence in the south, remove the burden of Gaza
from Israel and then wait until the time comes when Gaza could be included
in a future peace process. Gaza will not disappear and the people there
will remain part of the Palestinian people and when there is a peace
agreement that will create the Palestinian state next to Israel, Gaza will
have to be included in those developments.