by Joel Beinin
About 3:00 am on Wednesday morning Jan. 23, well-coordinated explosions demolished the iron wall built by Israel to seal the southern border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt (the Philadelphi axis). Tens of thousands of Palestinians streamed across the border and entered the Egyptian side of the town of Rafah, which had been bisected by the wall, in search of food, gasoline, and other basic commodities which have been in short supply for many months in Gaza. The first wave of Palestinians to cross consisted of hundreds of women who were met with water canons and beatings by Egyptian security forces.
The wall was the starkest expression of the international boycott of Hamas imposed by the United States, Israel, and the European Union after Hamas won a majority of the seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections of January 2006 and formed a government the following March. Hamas has been in sole control of the Gaza Strip after it executed a coup d’état against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007. Since then, Israel has tightened the siege of Gaza which had been in effect since June 2006.
In response, Hamas and Palestinian Jihad militants have fired thousands of Qassam missiles on the town of Sderot and other Israeli population centers near the Gaza Strip. According to the 2007 annual report of B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, Hamas and Jihad killed twenty-four Israeli civilians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during 2006 and 2007 and thirteen Israeli military personnel.
In retaliation, Israel escalated the pace of its targeted assassinations of Hamas and Jihad militants, killing hundreds of civilians in the process. Based on B’Tselem’s 2007 annual report, a Ha-Aretz investigation (Jan. 14, 2008) concluded that Israeli forces killed 816 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during 2006 and 2007; at least 360 of them were civilians not affiliated with any armed organizations; 152 of the casualties were under age 18, and 48 were under the age of 14.
Despite the siege, Israel continued to provide electricity and water to the Gaza Strip, allowing people to live on the edge of survival, hoping that the economic pressure would bring down the Hamas government. Half the population now depends on charity handouts from the UN refugee relief organization and other humanitarian NGOs. Four days before the wall came crashing down, Israel sharply cut back fuel and water supplies, imposing a harsh collective punishment on the entire population of 1.5 million.
According to Ha-Aretz columnist Amira Hass (Jan. 24, 2008), for several months Hamas leaders had been discussing measures to end Gaza’s torment, described by Rela Mazali, an Israeli feminist peace activist with the New Profile organization and an editor of Jewish Peace News, as “an abomination.” Apparently, Hamas decided that four days of hermetic closure, following months of siege, created conditions in which Egypt and the international community would be willing to accept bringing down the wall. Hamas did not take official responsibility for blowing up the wall, but praised the action.
The Egyptian press reported that, several days before the wall was blown up, the General Guide of the Muslim Brothers, the largest opposition force in Egypt, spoke by telephone to Khaled Mash’al, the head of the Political Bureau of Hamas who resides in Damascus. Hamas emerged from the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brothers; and there is a high likelihood that the actions of the two organizations were coordinated. Following this consultation, the Brothers began to organize demonstrations throughout Egypt beginning on Friday, Jan. 18. The number of its supporters in the street gradually increased, culminating on Wednesday. Jan. 23. That morning, thousands of Egyptian security forces surrounded Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo and arrested hundreds (according to some reports thousands) of people who were attempting to demonstrate in solidarity with the people of Gaza. The demonstration was supported by both the Muslim Brothers and secular nationalists.
Meanwhile, at Rafah, Egyptian security forces initially tried to stop the Palestinians from streaming across the border. But as the numbers swelled to tens of thousands, the government had no choice but to acquiesce. President Hosni Mubarak told journalists that he had instructed the security forces to: “Let them come in to eat and buy food” and return “as long as they are not carrying weapons.”
What are the implications of these developments?
It appears that the Annapolis summit and the sham “peace process” it was supposed to have reinvigorated are dead — killed by tens of thousands of unarmed Palestinians crossing the boarder into Egypt to meet their basic human needs. Shortly before President George W. Bush’s visit to the Middle East, Israel began an expanded campaign of pressure on the Gaza Strip, including an escalation in targeted assassinations. Hamas has sent several signals that it was prepared for an informal ceasefire with Israel. But the political perspective articulated at Annapolis and its aftermath requires that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cooperate with Israel in crushing Hamas rather than try to restore Palestinian national unity. Egypt’s task in this drama is to stand silently by.
This is an impossible task and cannot in any way contribute to peace. Even if Mahmud Abbas were to come to terms and sign an agreement with Israel, it would have no credibility and would be very short lived without some degree of approval and participation from Hamas. A government of national unity that represents all the factions of the Palestinian people is the only entity capable of signing a viable peace agreement with Israel.
The Israeli government led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opposes the kind of agreement that a Palestinian national unity government would demand, as has every previous government of Israel. Such an agreement would require recognition of Palestinian national rights rather than paternalistic “concessions” granted by a magnanimous but ultimately all-powerful Israel.
The limited capacity of the Egyptian government to acquiesce to this program has been exposed. The Mubarak regime would like very much to see Hamas crushed, since it is an ally of the Muslim Brothers, its most substantial domestic opposition force. But the Palestinian cause is too popular and emotional an issue in Egypt for Mubarak to appear to be assisting Israel in starving the people of Gaza. Moreover, some of the demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza also raised slogans against the drastic rise in the price of food in recent months and against Husni Mubarak himself. Opposition demonstrations linking the Palestine cause with domestic economic issues and autocracy have the potential to threaten a regime whose legitimacy is already minimal.
Palestine, Israel, and Egypt after the fall of the Gaza wall are more unstable than before. It is desirable, but alas unlikely, that this instability will bring the leaderships to their senses and impel them to negotiate a just peace for the benefit of all. But it is more likely that Olmert, Abbas, and Mubarak — all weak and discredited leaders — will seek to hold onto power by clinging to the United States, which has a long record of opposing Palestinian-Israeli peace. The people of the Gaza Strip have taken their survival into their own hands and have shown that the power of ordinary people is more likely to shape the future than polished diplomatic formulas.
Cairo, Jan. 24, 2008
Joel Beinin is Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University. Beinin’s article was posted to the mailing list of Jewish Voice for Peace.