Commentary Magazine


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Egypt “Solves” the Gaza Problem

When Israel sealed Gaza last week—cutting fuel supplies and food imports, among other resources—this blog was somewhat divided as to whether the fallout would be beneficial for Israel.  I argued that Israel had acted counterproductively, undermining its own strategy against Hamas while taking a substantial toll on Palestinian civilians.  My contentions colleagues Noah Pollak and David Hazony countered that Israel’s actions had made Gaza Egypt’s problem—a responsibility that Egypt had unwittingly accepted once it responded permissively to Hamas’ breach of the Gaza-Egypt border.

Unfortunately, my colleagues neglected a substantial difference between Israel and Egypt’s positions vis-à-vis Hamas-controlled Gaza.  While Israel justifiably refuses to deal with Hamas, Egypt continues to do so and can provide Hamas what it needs most—political legitimacy, particularly among Palestinians.  Egypt thus has substantial leverage for inducing Hamas to make sure that Gaza does not become Cairo’s problem—something that Hamas can provide so long as it maintains exclusive control of Gaza.

This morning, Egypt ensured that Gaza would not become its problem, welcoming Hamas leader Khalid Meshal in Cairo for meetings with Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Head of Intelligence Omar Suleiman.  As Egypt won Hamas’ agreement to seal the Gaza-Egypt border, it entertained a variety of demands aimed at repealing the understandings under which Israel left Gaza in 2005.  Hamas has thus called for removing European Union monitors; opening the Rafah crossing to non-Palestinian Authority ID cardholders; and repealing Israel’s veto over the Rafah’s status.  Most critically, it has called for negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas regarding Rafah’s administration, refusing to accept “anything less than a major role.”

For the time being, Abbas is refusing to deal with Hamas and standing by his previous agreements with Israel regarding Rafah.  But one can hardly bank on Abbas neglecting Hamas for too long, and Egypt’s dealings with Meshal suggest that the guarantees that Israel achieved upon leaving Gaza are under diplomatic attack.  In short, so long as Israel fails to construct a military strategy narrowly tailored towards defeating Hamas—or at least damaging Hamas’ ability to reliably produce security for Egypt—Gaza will remain its problem exclusively.

A word to the wise: he may be the dullest of dictators, but never underestimate Hosni Mubarak’s ability to determine and protect his interests effectively.