GAZA: Politically fraught but potentially win-win
Nuala Haughey

September 12, 2005

After 38 years, Israel`s soldiers are due within the coming days to begin withdrawing from their heavily fortified positions along Gaza`s frontier with Egypt, handing over responsibility to Egyptian troops.

This landmark undertaking could be a win-win proposition for two countries that have shared a frosty peace for a quarter of a century.

Israel, mistrustful of the Palestinians, gets a reliable party to take over its security mission on the southern edge of the coastal enclave. Having evacuated its 8,000 settlers last month, it no longer has any interest in risking the lives of its soldiers inside the Strip itself.

Egypt, fearful that its homegrown Islamic extremists behind recent suicide bombings in Sinai might get ideas from Gaza`s militant groups, gets to shore up its own national security by keeping a close eye on the area.

Meanwhile, both sides gain kudos, particularly from the US, which continues to pour vast sums of military and economic aid into the neighboring states.

Egypt`s military deployment along its 14 kilometer border with the Gaza Strip will consist of some 750 border police equipped with light arms, armored vehicles and radar equipment, as well as helicopters and a small naval unit to patrol the maritime border.

Under an accord signed on September 1 in a closed ceremony in a military base near Cairo, Egypt will take action `to prevent terror, smuggling and infiltration` along the frontier separating the Sinai from Gaza, known in Israel as the Philadelphi route and in Egypt as the Salah Eddin corridor.

In a late addition to the military accord, named the Philadelphi Agreement, Egypt also undertook not to provide weapons and ammunition to the Palestinian Authority.

With the transfer of border control, Egypt inherits the task of stopping weapons smuggling by Gaza`s militant groups through cross-border tunnels, which some Israelis have accused Egyptian troops of being complicit in.

Israel`s technologically advanced army failed to eradicate smuggling into Gaza, despite destroying some 1,600 Palestinian homes in the Rafah area of the southern Gaza Strip in numerous military incursions since 2000, described as tunnel hunting missions.

Israeli opponents of the high-level security cooperation between the two states include two ministers from the ruling Likud Party, as well as the former finance minister and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon`s party leadership contender, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu argues that the arrangement would increase rather than stem the flow of weapons into Gaza and that the deployment of Egyptian troops amounts to a `re-militarization` of the Sinai in violation of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Under that agreement Israel agreed to hand back all territories seized from Egypt in the 1967 war on condition that Egyptian military forces would not be deployed in the Sinai Peninsula.

While Egyptian security officers have been training Palestinian security forces in Gaza for months, the Philadelphi Agreement is a departure because it gives Egypt hands-on involvement in the arena of Palestinian-Israeli security. Some critics say that this further marginalizes the Palestinians - whose aspirations Sharon certainly did not have in mind when he foisted upon them his unilateral plan to `disengage` by evacuating all settlers from Gaza as well as a small pocket of the northern West Bank.

For Sharon, the presence of Egyptian troops on the Gaza border bolsters his claim that once the Israeli military has pulled out of the Strip Israel will no longer be an occupier.

But for Egypt`s involvement to be a domestic success, it must not be seen to be merely taking over Israel`s role as gatekeeper to a Gaza jail.

`Egypt has to be more sophisticated than that,` says Mohammed Sid Ahmed, a Cairo-based analyst and member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs think-tank.

`Gaza is very important to Egypt. You see Gaza is on Egypt`s immediate border. The relationship of Egypt with the rest of the Arab world goes across Gaza and Israel.`

Some analysts see Egypt`s involvement in promoting regional stability as a way for its autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak to deflect American pressure for more commitment to democratization at home. Egypt also has economic interests compelling closer trade and cooperation with its Jewish neighbor as it seeks to expand the number of recently established special industrial zones producing goods that can be exported tariff-free to the US, provided they contain a minimum amount of Israeli-produced material.

Palestinians, meanwhile, remain deeply suspicious that Israel is using the pullout from Gaza to consolidate and expand its hold on the larger occupied West Bank.

Egypt still faces resentment from Palestinians, and many Arabs, over the failure of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace deal to resolve the Palestinian question.

Egypt`s enhanced economic and security relations with Israel will be tempered by the political reality that it does not want to be identified, however obliquely, with any scheme that would further crush prospects for a future viable Palestinian state.

Nuala Haughey reports from the Middle East for the Irish Times. Acknowledgement to bitterlemons-international.org