Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cairo's plan B .


 by  Gamal A. G. Soltan

No more ad hoc arrangements. This is the message Egypt is sending to Hamas and the other relevant parties by setting up a fortified barrier along Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip.

The Egyptian move marks the end of an era in Egypt's policy toward Gaza and Hamas. In 2005, when Israel was getting ready to evacuate Gaza, Egypt demanded that the Israeli redeployment include the border region or "philadelphi strip" separating Egypt from Gaza. This was the first time since 1967 that Egypt had a direct land link with a Palestinian territory with no Israeli mediation. Egypt sought maximum possible maneuverability in conducting its relations with the narrow Gaza Strip. The arrangements made in 2005 helped enhance Egypt's role in Palestinian politics.

Developments in the ensuing years, however, have rendered Gaza a liability rather than an asset. Following Hamas' victory in Palestine's legislative elections of 2006 and the Islamists' takeover in Gaza the following year, Hamas became Egypt's neighbor. While Egypt's border with Gaza granted Cairo effective leverage against the radical Islamic organization, Hamas was also given an opportunity to press Egypt in exchange.

The past two years have witnessed complex maneuvers between Egypt and the Hamas government in Gaza. While Egypt has tried to accommodate Hamas so that Palestinian unity could be restored, Hamas sought to consolidate its grip on power in Gaza and enhance its position in Palestinian politics. Egypt employed tactics of cooptation and containment while Hamas was buying time, hoping it could exploit opportunities as they arose.

The Egyptian strategy reached deadlock when Hamas defied Cairo's efforts to reconcile rival Palestinian factions. Hamas' ability to balance its commitments toward its radical allies in Tehran and Damascus with the need to avoid alienating its big neighbor came to an end: Egypt chose not to continue the game of running in circles in its relations with Hamas. It was Hamas' reluctance that provoked Egypt to change course. Hamas' policy made it look as if it were taking Egypt for granted; Cairo realized the time had come to send Hamas a strong message.

For the past year, Egypt has been determined to put an end to Hamas' tunnels enterprise. It sought to address the standing issues in Gaza so that it could take its relations with Hamas to the next level. Egypt mediated between Israel and Hamas toward renewal of a ceasefire and an exchange of prisoners. These along with Palestinian reconciliation talks were designed to help stabilize the situation in Gaza so that Egypt could improve border security at a low political cost. Egypt sought a successful conclusion of the three mediated tracks of talks so that the situation in Gaza could be normalized until the time came for a final peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel.

The months-long negotiations, however, did not produce any positive results. Even though various parties shared responsibility for their failure, it was Hamas that was most reluctant to demonstrate the needed flexibility.

Egypt had to choose between proceeding with its plan to secure its Gaza border or putting the plan on hold until the situation in Gaza stabilized. But postponement of border security plans would play into Hamas' hands and allow a Palestinian faction to have a say in Egypt's security plans. The Egyptian decision was to go ahead with the border security barrier regardless of the situation in Gaza.

Thus the failure of national reconciliation talks in Gaza prompted Egypt to begin applying plan B in its dealings with Hamas. The new policy includes less accommodation and more pressure. Partly tolerating the tunnels had been an integral aspect of the earlier policy of accommodation. Shutting them down is an important instrument for forcing Hamas to deal seriously with hard realities. Egypt's harsh policy toward the Viva Palestina convoy is also part of the new policy. No more will such convoys be allowed; all aid supplies should be channeled through Egyptian official channels. This is Egypt's new policy regarding politically motivated convoys of humanitarian aid.

The new policy is a way to make Hamas realize the hard realities of power and geography. Hamas reacted to it with a mixture of reluctance and cooperative gestures. A short-lived period of intensified tension on the Gaza borders was an attempt by Hamas to deter Egypt from carrying out the border security plan. Repeated positive gestures from Hamas leaders and spokesmen regarding the possibility of signing the reconciliation deal with their Fateh rivals in Cairo were also made in an attempt to persuade Egypt not to go ahead with its escalated security plans. These tactics do not appear to be working; Hamas seemingly has to come up with new policy directions.

The tight new controls on the Egypt-Gaza border should redirect Hamas toward paying more attention to the Strip's border with Israel. It is no coincidence that tension is increasing across Gaza's Israel border while Egypt is tightening the screws on Hamas. Escalation with Israel is meant to create circumstances not conducive to completion of Egypt's plan of enhancing its border control.

Driving Hamas into a corner could force the radical Islamic organization into either moderation or new adventures. Plan C will be badly needed should Hamas opt for the latter.


 Gamal A. G. Soltan is the director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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