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Israel sees upside in hole in Gaza wall

Israeli officials see opportunity to turn Gaza over to Egypt to provide services.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 25, 2008

Palestinians cross the border into Egypt after the wall was destroyed by Palestinian militants. The tidal wave of people into Egypt may inadvertently force the nationto assume a greater responsibility for the Gaza Strip, something thatIsrael has been pushing for for quite some time.

Abid Katib/Getty Images

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When Palestinians toppled a metal wall separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt Wednesday, many expected Israeli officials to howl over Egypt allowing Hamas "terrorists" to rearm. After all, a cornerstone of the current peace process was supposed to be isolating Gaza.

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But the Israeli response has been surprisingly muted. In fact, some Israeli officials see some advantage in the breach.

Israel, which occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967, has since then clamored, intermittently and often privately, for Egypt to assume greater responsibility for the impoverished coastal strip, or even for Cairo to take control of Gaza. By breaking down the wall and sending Egypt a tidal wave of people pressed to stock up on everyday necessities, Hamas militants – who have been planning the break for weeks, according to local media reports – may have inadvertently brought Israel closer to this goal.

At the same time, the sight of thousands of Palestinians streaming south, keen to stock up on food and fuel, and the international criticism over a building humanitarian crisis calls into question whether the recent push to isolate Hamas as part of a US-sponsored peace process has a realistic chance of success.

"It seems to just confirm the sheer desperation and the failure of the policies on all sides. International policy appears to be largely stuck in a confused series of corners, and we don't see any prospect of a route out," says Robert Lowe, the director of the Middle East Program at Chatham House in London, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs. "Despite Bush's visit, despite Annapolis, there's no real sign of optimism."

Although Israeli officials have registered disappointment with Cairo's shortcomings in policing their border with the Gaza Strip, there has also been an equally palpable touch of relief in their words, as if the break in the wall effectively re-attaches Gaza to Egypt, which governed it until the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967.

Egyptian officials balk at this idea. Asked if Egypt would consider taking responsibility for Gaza, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hossam Zaki is unequivocal: "Certainly not. We have no interest in doing that, and we won't."

"That seems to be wishful thinking on Israel's part," Mr. Lowe says. "And if the international community sticks their heads in the sand, wishing it away, it's the same as the Israeli approach. It doesn't work because Israel does still have effective control over Gaza, and the ability to operate an economy with any minute degree of success is impossible as long as Israel is in control of Gaza's borders."

In light of the break, however, Israel has tried to underscore the extent to which, when it said it was disengaging from the Gaza Strip, it meant it. Following its removal of settlers and soldiers from Gaza in August 2005 and the Strip's declaration as a "hostile entity" – militants have launched more than 200 rockets from Gaza into Israel in the past week alone – Israel says it is no longer occupying Gaza and should not have to provide services to it.

"We need to understand that when Gaza is open to the other side we lose responsibility for it. So we want to disconnect from it," Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel's Army Radio on Thursday.

"We want to stop supplying electricity to them, stop supplying them with water and medicine, so that it would come from another place," Mr. Vilnai said.

Only weeks ago, there were back-channel discussions of Israel and Hamas reaching some kind of a prisoner exchange, in which Israel might release several hundred jailed Palestinians in exchange for Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas gunmen who had tunneled into Israel from Gaza in June 2006. Some hoped a cease-fire might follow. Now, that possibility seems more distant.