For months Israel has criticized Egypt’s inability to seal off its border with Gaza, and without a doubt the border has been penetrated by tunnels and smugglers. But as the Egyptian ambassador to Washington pointed out to me the other day, it is not an easy task to seal that border and, in fact, Israel had never been able to do so during its long occupation of Gaza. As the Egyptians have noted in the past, they have had neither the manpower nor the weapons needed to do an adequate job on the border because of the security restrictions imposed by Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
As much became clear in late January, when Hamas blew holes in the fence separating Gaza from Egypt and thousands of Palestinians poured into Egypt to buy critically short supplies and other goods that had been blocked by the Israelis. After the buying frenzy was over, Egypt was able to restore order with the support of Hamas, and has since reportedly doubled its force on the Gaza border to as many as 1,500 guards with Israel’s silent acquiescence.
There is no reason to believe, however, that even an enlarged contingent of Egyptian guards could or would prevent Hamas from blowing open the border at will in the future. This constitutes a critical chink in the Israeli blockade, one that has serious long-term consequences for Israel.
The January breakout from Gaza opened a door for Hamas to smuggle in improved rockets that are now reaching the city of Ashkelon. The fact is that Hamas retains the option of opening the border to resupply their inventory of long-range weapons from Iran at any time in the future. It will not be hard for Hamas to break through the border again and organize thousands of Gazans to cross into Egypt if the promise is for basic supplies and luxuries that have been denied by the Israeli blockade.
Under the conditions prevalent at an uncontrolled border, the resupplying of weapons is nearly inevitable. And when the border opens, foreign volunteers from Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations may be able to slip through. Indeed, a smattering of reports about an Al Qaeda presence in Gaza have already surfaced, and Israel’s chief of military intelligence has said that Syrian- and Iranian-trained terrorists infiltrated Gaza after the border was breached.
In short, the situation is getting worse and far more dangerous for Israeli civilians living in close proximity to Gaza. Israel — and, if news reports are correct, the United States — will inevitably raise the stakes for Egypt by demanding that it seal the border. But the question is: What can Egypt do to stop the traffic?
What is certain is that the Egyptians will not open fire on Gazan women, children and civilians. So where is the security for Israel in all of this?
As the conflict over Gaza heats up and Israeli incursions and attacks increase the civilian body count, Arab public opinion will only become more inflamed by the graphic television images being broadcast out of the Strip. As it is, sympathy is building for Hamas and its hold on Gaza is strengthening. If the long-term policy of the United States and Israel is to discredit Hamas and build up the West Bank-based Fatah leadership under Mahmoud Abbas, then the Gaza policy is an absolute failure.
For Egypt, it is hardly a comforting proposition to have an open border with Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main opposition movement, and is increasingly identified with Iran and some would say Al Qaeda. But with public opinion aroused in Cairo, there are limits to what the Egyptians can do. The reality is that in this situation there is no security for Egypt either.
The progressive improvement in Hamas’s inventory of rockets and the escalating violence against Israeli cities will be an intolerable situation for any Israeli government. Hamas will invite through its actions further large-scale Israeli ground operations, possibly leading to the reoccupation of Gaza, if not today then in the future.
Negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis will be the first casualty. The second casualty will be the two-state solution.
No matter how you look at it, Hamas wins. Hamas wins by losing Gaza, where in any event it cannot offer a better life for the Palestinians due to American and Israeli policies. Hamas also wins by standing up to Israel and against President Bush’s Middle East policy. And Hamas wins because of the political undertow that will further discredit Abbas and a policy of moderation. Hamas wins because we will be entering the third intifada.
There may be nothing we can do about this. There certainly is nothing Egypt can do. But it is not inconceivable that the international community could step in, through the United Nations, to save all the parties from themselves.
A robust U.N. force with a Chapter VII mandate could control the Gaza-Egyptian border, provide a rational and controlled exit-and-entry point for Gazans and their goods, and starve Hamas of its military potential rather than its humanitarian or political capabilities. But this can only happen if Israel and the United States come to recognize that military operations cannot destroy the idea of Hamas, that Hamas represents a sizable constituency in Gaza and a growing constituency in the West Bank, and that Israeli military operations are making Hamas stronger politically, not weaker.
A properly constructed U.N. force could take the pressure off Egypt, talk directly with Hamas and relieve the economic pressure on all Gazans at the same time as it reduced the threat of more sophisticated arms flowing to the most radical elements of Hamas and other radical and militant organizations. And by opening a channel to Hamas and reducing the pressure of the blockade, a cease-fire might become possible.
A U.N. force on the Egypt-Gaza border is not, of course, the solution to the broader problems facing Israel and the Palestinians, but we have hit a tipping point where the region is sinking into a future of increasing violence and casualties on all sides — a future that none of the parties to the conflict should want.
Edward Walker, a former ambassador to Israel and to Egypt, is a professor of global and political theory at Hamilton College.