Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 18 January 2006
Issue No. 777
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rafah attack sparks outrage

Magda El-Ghitany gauges reactions to last week's attack by Palestinian militants on the Rafah crossing which left two Egyptian soldiers dead and 30 injured

Click to view caption
Members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade use a bulldozer to smash parts of the wall between Egypt and Gaza; Palestinians stand on the broken barricade of the wall; and wave an Egyptian flag protesting against the attack

Egyptians were shocked on 4 January by news that an estimated 30 members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade had killed two Egyptian soldiers and injured 30 at the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian-Gaza border. Following the incident 77 Palestinians were arrested.

Palestinian officials attempted to downplay an incident they described as accidental. Hours after the attack Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA), apologised to "Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and to all Egyptians for the shameful incident" and conveyed his "deep condolences to the families of the two victims".

Egypt's only official reaction came the next day in a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry condemning "the actions carried out at the Rafah crossing by a group of irresponsible people". The statement continued that such "unjustified violent actions threaten Palestinian national interests". On Saturday Interior Minister Habib El-Adli also appeared on Egyptian TV to say Abbas's statements had given "the incident its appropriate weight, without exaggeration".

The 30 militants had blocked the access road to the Rafah crossing -- which Israel handed over to the Palestinians in September following its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip -- preventing anyone from crossing to Egypt. They then used two bulldozers to smash parts of the fence that demarcates the border with Egypt. Eye witnesses say that between 300 and 1,000 Palestinians then crossed into Egyptian territories. Egyptian soldiers, who fired warning shots in the air, were attacked, resulting in the death of two and the injury of 30.

The incident happened a day after Al-Aqsa Brigade leader Alaa Al-Hamas, accused of kidnapping British human rights activist Kate Burton and her family, had been arrested and the attack appears to have been mounted in an attempt to force the authorities to release Al-Hamas. Indeed, the same militants had earlier occupied an election office in Rafah and other official buildings, warning that they would prevent Palestinian parliamentary elections, scheduled for 25 January, from taking place until Al-Hamas was released.

"Both [Egyptian and Palestinian] officials are keen that the incident does not harm bilateral ties," one senior diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly.

While the official Egyptian response was muted press coverage of the incident was not.

In a column headlined "Egyptian burdens... rejected apology of Abu-Mazen" Abbas El-Tarabily, editor-in-chief of the daily opposition Al-Wafd wrote that, "if the two Egyptian victims had been killed by the Israelis strikes would have taken place across Egypt and the whole issue might have been taken up with the UN Security Council".

"This did not happen," he continued, "because the killers were Palestinian... [but] that Palestinians were the ones who fired does not mean Egypt should remain silent...what happened was brutal, premeditated and without justification."

Emad Gad, editor of Al-Ahram' s Israeli Selections and secretary-general of Arabs Against Discrimination, and Cairo University political science professor Ahmed Youssef, both attribute the Rafah incident to the growing turmoil in the Gaza Strip and the apparent weakness of Palestinian security forces.

According to Youssef the recent wave of kidnappings and violence in Gaza are the responsibility of small decentralised groups similar to that responsible for the Rafah incident.

The Rafah crossing, says Gad, is now the Palestinians preferred venue for staging protests. Three days before the Rafah clash, he told the Weekly, Palestinian police officers had gathered at the crossing to protest against the killing of a colleague during an anti-drug trafficking operation. "Palestinians with demands now use the Rafah crossing to blackmail the Palestinian authorities into looking into their grievances. They know that anything that happens there attracts the international media and because of this they believe the Palestinian authorities will pursue their demands in order to avoid problems with the international community."

Fathi El-Shazli, former assistant to the foreign minister for European affairs, expressed his surprise at the lack of retaliation from Egyptian soldiers in the face of the attack.

"Egyptian forces sometimes fire against Egyptians during strikes so how come they did not fire against non-Egyptians -- even if they were Palestinians -- when they were clearly being attacked?" he asked.

The "weak response" was, El-Shazli believes, a result of the "sensitivity with which Egypt tends to treat Palestinian issues".

"If such an attack happened on any other border Egyptian soldiers would have retaliated. And there should be no difference in the way borders are policed. That some Palestinians wanted to blackmail the Palestinian authorities is not, in the end, an Egyptian concern."

While Youssef downplays the possibility of the Rafah clash harming Egyptian-Palestinian ties Gad believes the incident will "negatively impact the way the international community -- the US, the European Union and, most importantly, the Quartet -- view the Palestinian question".

It could also, he says, undermine "Egyptian public sympathy with the Palestinians". And coming at such a volatile time in Israel's domestic politics, with Binyamin Natanyahu likely to mount a strong challenge for the Israeli premiership, any recurrence of such an incident could be used by Israel as an excuse "to reinvade Gaza to end such actions".

Egypt "needs to reconsider entrance and exit procedures at the Rafah crossing to secure its borders," says Adel Soleiman, director of the International Centre for Future and Strategic Studies. Cairo should also, believes Soleiman, intensify diplomatic efforts to promote unity among Palestinian factions.

Gad and El-Shazli agree that one way to prevent a reoccurrence of violent incidents like Rafah is to reconsider the Egyptian-Israeli agreement on the number of Egyptian troops deployed along the 13 kilometre border, currently limited to 750. "It is now clear that this number is not enough. Egypt should demand the number of its troops be increased for the safety of everyone," believes Gad.

"It should be made clear to everyone," says El-Shazli, "that any attack, even a minor one, on Egypt's borders will be met with strong Egyptian retaliation."

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