When militant elements from Hamas, the Palestinian resistance movement, began tearing apart a wall that kept the 1.5 million people of Gaza confined in a narrow space – prey to periodic armed incursions and air-strikes from Israel, unable to cross into Egypt’s Sinai region -- President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had a choice to make.
Mubarak was proscribed by the terms of a peace treaty with Israel, from maintaining an armed presence in the Sinai. His lightly armed border police could nonetheless have taken on the Palestinian militants in armed combat, enabling him to add his name to a distinguished roster of Arab leaders – King Hussein of Jordan in 1970, President Hafez al-Assad of Syria in 1976 -- who have cracked down on Palestinian self assertion in the cause of “stability”.
Egypt held its fire. Mubarak was impelled perhaps by compassion for a people who have suffered a brutal blockade since Israel’s “unilateral withdrawal” in August 2005. Equally, he may have been anxious about the possibility of an adverse reaction within his own country, especially from truculent elements of the Muslim Brotherhood. And as Egyptian forces stood down, waves of desperate Palestinians made their way through the breached border to buy the essentials that Israel denies them.
For all of four decades and particularly since the so-called “peace process” began in 1991, the issue of Palestine has been confounded by the unilateral Israeli ability to create “facts on the ground”. With its resounding victory in the Palestinian elections in January 2006, its expulsion of the collaborationist Fatah movement from Gaza last year and now with its opening of the border to Egypt, Hamas has created some facts of its own on the ground.
The reverberations are yet to die down. U.S. President George Bush’s visit to the region in January made it abundantly clear that Israel will seek unilaterally to impose a “two-state solution” before the end of his presidency. Israeli leaders are increasingly prone now to say out in public what once seemed unutterable. If a two-state solution were to “collapse”, said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israel would face a “struggle for equal voting rights” by the Palestinians, which would effectively “finish” it off as a Jewish state.
Fatah has signalled that it would be a willing recipient of this unilateral imposition. This is a circumstance of some convenience, since Fatah-controlled West Bank is of greater importance from the point of view of Jewish population centres and Israel’s territorial ambitions. Gaza in contrast is an unwanted territory. Egypt declined to take it back after its negotiated peace with Israel. Israel itself has vacated its occupation and would have no further interest in Gaza if it were not for the persistence of a militant tendency in the territory.
Yet, Israel’s well-worn tactic of collective punishment and retribution, has been a conspicuous failure. To hand de facto control over to Egypt and bring back an element of Fatah oversight of the border – as seems likely now – may be for it, an acceptable way out of the conundrum.
Israel has consistently followed a rejectionist line since the peace process collapsed in 2000 on account of its bitter opposition to any form of territorial concession. In its most recent phase, this has meant a refusal to honour the Palestinian national elections and the outright rejection of numerous offers from Hamas for a negotiated ceasefire. In September 2007, Israel effectively went to war with 1.5 million civilians by declaring Gaza an “enemy entity”.
Israel has felt at liberty to raid Gaza at will and destroy all the apparatuses of governance in that besieged land, in retaliation for every perceived act of violence against it. A longer-term dilemma for Israel could arise if de facto responsibility to enforce good conduct within Gaza were to devolve upon Fatah or the Egyptian government. Neither would want to assume this responsibility if Israel were to continue applying its presumptive right to maximum retribution and collective punishment against Palestinian civilians.
At the same time, Egypt would have distinctly mixed feelings about integrating the Gaza population with its own. The peace treaty with Israel assures it of being the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, which in turn has enabled the Mubarak regime to buy a measure of domestic political stability. But the political compact at home is delicate and the entry of an element of Palestinian radicalism could seriously destabilise it. Israel’s persistent policy of denying the Palestinians their dignity could now jeopardise the cornerstone of its security, the peace treaty with Egypt.