Israel, Gaza tensions: Why Egypt helps maintain the blockade

Simmering tensions – due in part to a long-standing blockade of the territory – are escalating toward another Israel Gaza standoff. Often overlooked is Egypt's role in the blockade.

Eyad Baba/AP
Palestinian women wait to cross to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, March 1.

Israel today threatened a second Gaza war if Palestinian militants do not cease the rocket attacks that have increased as discontent simmers over a long-standing blockade. But while Gazans, supported by international human rights activists, have lambasted Israel for the blockade, often overlooked is the accessory role of neighboring Egypt.

Egypt has also kept its border with Gaza largely closed, despite the intense public anger it arouses here and throughout the Muslim world.

The move is motivated by regional rivalries and international alliances, say analysts. Egypt doesn’t want to take the pressure off Israel, which it holds responsible for running Gaza. At the same time, Egypt has an interest in weakening militant Islamist group Hamas, which rules the territory. And many suspect that US pressure plays into Egypt's participation in the blockade, though Egypt denies this.

Emad Gad, an analyst at the government-funded Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, boils the issue down to Egypt’s opposition to Hamas.

“Hamas is part of another coalition in the region – the Iran, Syria, Hezbollah coalition,” he says. “Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Hamas is trying to minimize the Egyptian role in the Palestinian cause.”

Under these circumstances, he says, Egypt has little reason to end the blockade.

When and why the blockade started

Israel began restricting the flow of goods into Gaza when Hamas captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. After Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in 2007, Israel tightened the blockade, allowing only a trickle of basic goods into the coastal enclave through the five entry points it controls.

Egypt followed suit, keeping the Rafah crossing mostly closed. It opens the border only to allow special shipments of medical supplies into Gaza and to allow some Palestinians to leave, most for medical treatment.

Egypt last year allowed more than 7,000 tons of medical equipment into Gaza and about 75,000 Palestinians to leave the territory, says Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki, who disputes labeling the border as “closed.”

But under the blockade, Gaza has experienced shortages of basic goods, and building supplies needed for reconstruction after Israel’s offensive there last year are almost impossible to come by. Most of the goods used in Gaza are now smuggled in through tunnels on the Egyptian border.

In December, Egypt began building a new subterranean wall along the border, designed to extend about 60 feet below the surface and block the smuggling tunnels that bring weapons but also basic trade goods into Gaza that for the past four years have been a crucial safety valve to reduce pressure on commodity prices in Gaza.

Playing the blame game

Egypt’s main line of defense for closing the border is to pass responsibility to Israel. Egypt considers Gaza under Israeli occupation, and therefore under international law it is Israel’s duty to provide Gazans with their basic needs – not Egypt’s. Allowing goods through Rafah would take the pressure off Israel to end the blockade.

But Egypt also blames Hamas. It considers Hamas’s takeover of Gaza illegal, and says it cannot open the border to regular traffic without the return of the Palestinian Authority (PA) officials and European monitors who operated the crossing, which was used for people and not goods, before the Hamas takeover.

Hamas, by refusing to sign a reconciliation deal that would allow the PA back into Gaza – despite months of Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks – is also responsible for the border closure, says Mr. Zaki.

“You’re coming to the third on the list here to blame, and you’re missing out on the first and second, which are Israel and Hamas,” he says. “The responsibility is not ours. The occupying power is responsible, and the ruling party in Gaza is responsible.”

Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid, independent analyst and political science professor at the American University in Cairo, says that is a cop-out. While he agrees that Israel is breaking international law and should be held accountable, and that Hamas also bears responsibility, those facts do not absolve Egypt of its duty to relieve the suffering across its border.

“One can sympathize with Egypt in that they feel they are being singled out,” he says. But “if Israel is violating international law, then it should be lawful for the Egyptian government to supply Palestinians with basic needs.”

Why Egypt is wary of Hamas

Many see the real motivation for Egypt’s position as coming from its animosity toward Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s outlawed opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood. The blockade is partly an attempt to weaken the Islamist group.

It is also widely seen as a move to pressure Hamas to sign a reconciliation deal with Fatah. Egypt racheted up that pressure with the recent decision to construct an underground barrier on the border with Gaza that will block smuggling tunnels.

Egypt, a former regional leader whose stature has sunk in recent years, would like to regain the clout that would come with brokering a Palestinian accord.

But Mr. Zaki says there is another reason Egypt cannot open the border: to do so, he says, would mean Gaza would become a dependent of Egypt, forever ruining the dream of Palestinian statehood.

That notion is “ridiculous,” according to the analyst Sayyid, who says allowing goods into Gaza would not put Egypt into the position of becoming Gaza’s caretaker. “If the people of Gaza had their needs supplied, I doubt very much Hamas would give up its call for an independent state,” he says.

Pressure from the US?

Though Egypt has many of its own reasons to keep Rafah closed, many here consider the decision partly a product of pressure from the US, which gives Egypt about $2 billion in aid each year and would like to see Hamas’s role in the region weakened.

Zaki rejected this idea, and a US embassy official here would not say whether the US has urged Israel to keep the Rafah crossing closed, only saying that Hamas has obstructed the reconstruction of Gaza by rejecting the international community’s conditions for it to be a part of the political process.

If the true motivation for the blockade is to weaken the role of Hamas and encourage Palestinian reconciliation, it might have unintended consequences. While support seems to be eroding for Hamas in Gaza, dropping popularity would likely make Hamas less inclined sign a reconciliation deal that would lead to elections.

And Martha Myers, country director for CARE International in the West Bank and Gaza, said that decreased support for Hamas does not necessarily mean an increase in support for Fatah. In some Palestinians it has led to further radicalization, she said.

“There is a very scary growing trend of resistance to Hamas that has growing support, and what seeds it is the idea that Hamas isn’t radical enough,” she says.

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