More eyewitness accounts are emerging from released aid activists whom the Israelis had imprisoned.” They corroborate the videotape showing that Israeli forces were firing at the deck of the Mavi Marmura before they boarded it. The Israeli forces also broke their own rules of engagement, requiring them to shoot at the legs of resisters. They instead shot humanitarian workers in the face, shoulder and chest. It may be that such violence on the part of Israeli soldiers provoked the attack with sticks on the Israeli commandos as they landed, videotape of which the Israeli army has released.
The Israeli army is sending back home all of the kidnapped aid workers seized on the ships within 48 hours. Initially the Israeli authorities had threatened to imprison for an undisclosed amount of time those who would not sign a Hebrew-language confession. The UNSC condemnation and that of dozens of countries in the world appears to have changed the Israelis’ minds on the issue.
For an understanding of the impact of the Israeli blockade of Gaza on the health and welfare of Palestinians, see this reliefweb Q & A.
President Hosny Mubarak of Egypt ordered on Monday that the blockade of Gaza be lifted and Palestinians be allowed to buy and sell goods beyond the confines of Gaza’s borders.
Although Egypt is widely criticized for mainly keeping the Rafah crossing closed or open only for short periods, Cairo is forced into this arrangement by its peace treaty with Israel and its dependence on the US for $2 billion a year in various sorts of aid, as well as by its military weakness vis-a-vis Israel, making any other course futile.
Were Egypt to defy Israel’s blockade for a long period of time or let in forbidden materials, the Israelis would almost certainly just bomb the entrance. Egypt’s government deeply dislikes having to remain silent in the face of Israeli provocations, as Khalid al-Shami pointed out in Tuesday’s al-Quds al-Arabi. But in fact Egypt could do nothing in the face of such an Israeli military action, being constrained by its treaty obligations and by its close alliance with the USA, as well as by massive Israeli advantages in the sophistication of their military equipment and training, as was repeatedly demonstrated in the past.
But keeping the border this open holds dangers for Egypt itself. Cairo fears that at some point Israeli foreign minister and leader of the far rightwing Yisrael Beitenu party Avigdor Lieberman will make good on his threats of ‘transferring’ the Palestinians. Egypt is determined that Israel will not resolve its Palestinian problem by expelling them to Egypt as refugees in the Sinai Peninsula. (Likely the Israeli shooting-fish-in-the-barrel war on Gaza in winter 2008-2009 was in part intended to provoke a panicked exodus of Palestinians into the Sinai, but Egyptian military forces prevented any such thing from occurring).
Egypt deeply dislikes the Hamas party/ militia and would not want to be in the position of allowing its influence to spread among bedouin and others in the Sinai region. Such Hamas influences are already blamed for terrorist bombings at Red Sea resorts earlier in this decade.
Egypt recently arrested what it called a criminal smuggling ring of Hizbullah agents that had , Cairo insisted, arranged for weapons to reach Hamas via the tunnels through Egyptian territory. Egypt views Hamas as a gullible cat’s paw of Iran and a useful idiot for Hizbullah supporters. Since the Mubarak government wants to limit Iranian influence in the Levant and northern Africa, it sees Hamas through the lens of suspicion.
Egypt’s regime has been locked in a a love-hate relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood fundamentalists for decades. The Brotherhood is the largest and most credible opposition to the ruling National Democratic Party, and it is carefully curbed by the security forces (the Brotherhood currently has 80 members of parliament in the lower house of parliament, but they had to run as independents or under other party banners). On the other hand, the regime cultivates the Brotherhood to offset leftist influence (Mubarak’s government is center-right).
The Brotherhood is virulently anti-Israeli and generally sympathetic to Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood itself.
Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, is 81 and apparently in poor health, and it is likely he will pass from the political scene in the next few years. He may be succeeded by his son Gamal. But the transition period will be dangerous for the ruling party, and the Muslim Brotherhood could take advantage of the power vacuum.
The Israeli adventurism on the high seas and the way it ended badly has the potential to place the Egyptian government in a bad light in the eyes of the public compared to the Brotherhood.
Egypt responded to these pressures by opening the Rafah Gate for an ‘unspecified period of time.’ The move may mollify pro-Palestinian Egyptians and to some extent the Muslim Brotherhood. But to implement it for very long likely would indeed lead to an Israeli attack on the Rafah crossing.
For these and other reasons, the lifting of the blockade at the Rafah crossing is likely to be temporary, as long as blockade remains Israeli policy.
In the meantime, Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal wrote a letter to Mubarak complaining that the lifting of the blockade was too narrow and asking Egypt to work for a permanent end of the siege of Gaza. Turkey is also said to be pressuring Egypt in this direction. But these two cannot offset the influence with the Egyptian government of the US.