February 8, 2008 No. 43
The Fall of the Gaza Wall
When Hamas broke down the wall separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt on the night of January 22-23 and masses of Palestinians rushed to the Egyptian side to buy goods and enjoy the taste of freedom, the pictures and declarations in the international media created the impression that this was an event of far-reaching significance, similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Israeli reactions ranged from the opinion that this was a crushing Hamas victory over the Israeli government's siege policy through deep concerns about the security implications to hopes that this actually presented an opportunity for Israel to ride itself of any responsibility for the Gaza Strip. Still, the question remains whether this event actually does have serious ramifications for Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Does the breach in the wall mean that siege of Gaza has come to an end? Not at all. Gaza's distress basically stems from the fact that its sources of income have contracted because workers and goods cannot reach the Israeli market for labor or goods or use the port of Ashdod to get to other markets. Nor does Gaza receive its proportional share of international assistance as long as the sanctions on the Hamas government continue. For these reasons, unemployment in Gaza is extremely high and most of the population subsists on support from UNRWA and other humanitarian organizations. The breach in the wall provided some relief from specific exigencies resulting from the cutback in supplies of fuel and consumer goods from Israel following the escalating military confrontation with Hamas in the weeks leading up to the fall of the wall. But it could have been assumed that the relative easing of the security situation (i.e., the reduction in rocket fire) on the Gaza front would have led Israel to renew the supply of basic goods.
Can Israel renounce any responsibility for Gaza given the opening of access to Egypt? For that to be possible, several conditions must be met. The first is that Egypt will agree to accept responsibility for Gaza. The second is that Egypt will be capable of playing that role. The third is that the international community will accept that entry to and from Egypt exempts Israel of responsibility for what happens in Gaza. It is doubtful that any of these conditions will actually materialize.
First of all, Egypt cannot allow a situation in which its border with Gaza will be open for any length of time. From its perspective, that would strengthen the direct contact with well-armed Islamic extremists in Gaza and the leakage of insecurity and disorder into Sinai, which is already an area where the Egyptian authorities find it difficult to maintain stable control. Thus, Egypt will do the minimum necessary to appear solicitous of its Palestinian brothers but it has already taken steps to close the border. That does not mean a hermetic seal; smuggling of weapons and other items will probably continue as it did before the wall was taken down.
Secondly, Egypt cannot be a substitute for Israel in many important respects. It can serve as a conduit for moving goods to Gaza but it cannot provide a market for Gaza goods or workers because the economies of Gaza and Egypt are competitive, not complementary. Moreover, it is more expensive for Gazans to exports via Egypt because Egyptian ports are further away and less efficient. Hamas has declared that its wants to cut its dependence on Israel and use Egypt as an alternative, and Egypt, which has no desire to appears as a collaborator in the Israeli siege, is discussing the Hamas request, but that does not mean that there is any economic logic in this. If there is no possibility of bringing goods from Israel because of Israeli policy and it is possible to import from Egypt, any government in Gaza will do that, but that cannot be the basis for building the Gaza economy.
Finally, it is highly doubtful that the international community will agree to accept Israel's total renunciation of responsibility for Gaza as long as Israel continues to occupy other Palestinian territories in the West Bank and continues to influence developments in Gaza through its control of Gaza air and maritime space and its refusal to allow the opening of air and seaports that would serve the Gaza Strip.
Has the Israeli policy of pressuring Hamas by besieging Gaza now failed? The more relevant question is whether it ever had any chance of succeeding. It might have been hoped that pressure would bear fruit if Hamas were simultaneously offered an acceptable alternative. In this instance, Hamas was offered two options. The first was to disappear and give up control in Gaza in favor of the government of Mahmoud Abbas. The second was to stop being Hamas, that is, to change completely its worldview and accept the three conditions of the Quartet. There was no chance that Hamas would agree to either of these choices, and it was therefore predictable that it would try to break the logjam either by escalating the violence or adopting some other dramatic action, such as breaking down the wall. If Israel intends to offer the Hamas government a more acceptable option, then Hamas has for come time suggested a deal based on a ceasefire, in order to stabilize the situation. The government of Israel needs to decide whether persisting with the pressure in the unfounded hope that that will lead to the collapse of Hamas in Gaza is more promising than a limited deal with Hamas.
Events in Gaza have again dramatized the split between Gaza and the West Bank and pointed out the total lack of influence that the Abbas and his government exercise in Gaza. Although they try to remain an actor and create conditions for the restoration of their authority through control of Gaza's external "envelope" (i.e., the border crossings with Israel and Egypt), Hamas has no intention of allowing that to happen, particularly after the success it registered in entrenching the fact that Hamas is Egypt's interlocutor in everything connected with the Egypt-Gaza border.
Developments on the Egyptian border may have created an opportunity to reexamine the role of the international community at the crossing points to Gaza. And a renewed and even reinforced international presence may be the optimal solution for the interested parties, but on this matter, too, it is doubtful that anything can be done without Hamas involvement and participation in any understandings on that sort of international activity.
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