Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Off limits and beyond the borders

Has the time come for Egypt to re-visit its relationship with Israel? Dina Ezzat asks

The pilgrims' progress

Time to say no

Khadra, an elderly Palestinian pilgrim, could have been one of the first 2,500 Palestinians, stranded in Arish and Nuweiba on their way back from the Holy Muslim pilgrimage in Mecca, to return to Gaza, possibly through the Rafah crossing point.

Khadra's privileged access is simple: she is dead. The transfer of the body through the Rafah crossing point was easier to secure than the passage of the rest of the pilgrims. Following one night at the Olympic Village at Arish where a few hundred Palestinians were kept throughout last week after completing the hajj, Khadra, nearing 80 years old according to other members of the same group of pilgrims, passed away. Khadra, along with the other pilgrims, were waiting pending a deal between Egypt and Israel that would help them get back to the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing point, over which Israel has no control, rather than the Kerm Abu Salem point which is controlled by the Israelis.

"She was so tired. She was barely able to deal with the hardship involved in the pilgrimage," said one Palestinian woman pilgrim. "Then we were kept on board the boat before docking at Nuweiba for a couple of days. We spent one night here at this temporary shelter. Her fragile body could not take all this. She passed away."

According to sources at the Egyptian Ministry of Health at Arish, when Khadra suddenly fell ill she was rushed to Arish Hospital but died before the ambulance carrying her made it to the hospital.

"We are providing everybody here with the maximum healthcare possible," commented a Ministry of Health source who asked that his name be withheld. "When they arrived we provided them with medical check-ups. Khadra suffered no particular problem upon her initial arrival at Arish Olympic Village on Sunday evening. She became very ill on Monday morning."

The account of this source is accurate, by the testimony of most Palestinian pilgrims who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly at the Olympic Village in Arish. Similar accounts were given by other Palestinian pilgrims taking shelter at Arish Stadium. Ambulances and doctors are available 24 hours. Medical supplies are available for free. But as women and men shouted in unison, their problem is not about medical care but about heading home to Gaza through the Rafah crossing point which Egyptian authorities opened to allow them to pass to Mecca.

"I am well aware of the problems of the pilgrims," President Hosni Mubarak said on Sunday. "Of course we always want to help our Palestinian brethren but we are now faced with a very difficult situation. We are trying to solve their problems without encountering a new wave of fabricated criticism," Mubarak said.

For over six months, since the Hamas military takeover of Gaza that put the mission of the European Union Border Administration Mission (EUBAM) on hold, Egypt has been the subject of serious Israeli criticism over its administration of the 14- kilometre border with Gaza. Israeli complaints, including some videotapes supposedly of documented cooperation between Egyptians and Hamas operatives smuggling weapons and money through to Gaza, have caused the suspension of $100 million of US military aid to Egypt this year."It is true that the US administration has the right to waver this suspension if it decides that Egypt is improving its performance on the issue of monitoring the borders with Israel, as well as in relation to the other conditions related to political liberties and reforms," commented an Egyptian official who asked not to be identified. He added, "However, this is an indication of how far Israel has gone in bashing Egypt."

Over the past couple of weeks, Israeli criticism of Egypt seemed to go overboard. Speaking before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who otherwise enjoys positive relations with officials in Cairo, lashed Egypt for what she alleged was poor management of the borders with Gaza.

According to Livni's testimony released by the press, "Egypt played a positive role at the Annapolis conference, but that does not contradict the fact that what [Egypt is] doing at the Philadelphi [corridor between Gaza and Egyptian territories in Rafah] is deplorable and problematic," Livni said.

Egypt last week issued an official response. In a press release issued by the foreign minister's office, Cairo slammed Livni for making fabricated accusations against Egypt. "Livni does not know what she is talking about," stated the press release. The following day, Israeli Minister of Defence Ehud Barak was in Sharm El-Sheikh for talks with President Mubarak and his most senior aides, Defence Minister Hussein Tantawi and General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, mainly on the management of the borders between Egypt and Gaza.

Before Barak left, Mubarak had warned Livni, in an interview with the Israeli press, not to cross the limits again. Still, Egyptian public opinion had been aroused.

"This is so annoying," said a taxi driver in Sharm El-Sheikh. "Why should we receive Barak following the Israeli insults to Egypt? We should not have received him."

Presidential spokesman Suleiman Awwad argued that Barak had requested a meeting with the president to exchange views on a number of issues. Following his talks with Mubarak, Barak was keen to affirm his government's interest in maintaining "good and strategic relations with Egypt". However, Barak was not short on criticism of what he qualified as "the negative situation on the borders between Egypt and Gaza". Barak told reporters that his country was expecting Egypt to exert more effort in managing this situation and that security teams from Egypt and Israel would be meeting to resolve the matter. He insisted, however, that Israel saw no point in granting Egypt its demand to increase the 750 guards stationed on the borders with Gaza following an agreement between Egypt and Israel in August 2005 -- in what constituted a tacit amendment to the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement that allows only police forces to be stationed in Sinai.

Egyptian officials speaking to the Weekly on background said Egypt will continue to insist on raising the number of security guards to 3,000. "Currently the 750 guards are doing their utmost but this is a very difficult task. If the Israelis are serious they have to cooperate. President Mubarak spoke frankly to [Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert, when he was here [on 20 November]," the source added.

In the view of Egyptian officials concerned, Israel's decision not to upgrade the border guard numbers and equipment is in part related to internal Israeli political context. The current Kadima head of government, Egyptian officials believe, is concerned about the harsh criticism that could come from the ranks of Likud and other right-wing political quarters in Israel. As the same officials argue, Israel also wants to pressure Egypt. "They know it is very difficult to manage the situation with this number of guards," one official said.

According to the Israeli account, there is a complex network of tunnels built between Rafah and Gaza through which money, arms and at times militants, all at the command of Hamas, pass. The Egyptian account is that these tunnels have been operating since the Israeli occupation of Gaza and Sinai in 1967. Since it regained control of Sinai in 1982, Egypt says, it has done an exceptional job in destroying these secret tunnels. During his joint press conference with Olmert in Sharm El-Sheikh, Mubarak said Egypt was also interested in controlling these tunnels, simply because arms and explosives could equally be smuggled into Sinai, thus compromising Egyptian national security interests. And following his talks with Barak late last week, Mubarak told the Israeli press that Egypt would continue to monitor the borders with Gaza.

"We are doing all what we can but sometimes when we destroy a few tunnels, almost overnight other tunnels are built," commented one Egyptian official. "It is not an easy situation."

Egypt told both Israel and the US that it was willing to initiate three-way cooperation on the matter. Egyptian officials say a delegation from the US Defense Department is expected to visit the Egyptian borders with Gaza within the next few days for a first-hand assessment of Egyptian efforts. The delegation would also, according to the same sources, assess the equipment and technical assistance that the US could provide Egypt with which to serve the purpose.

Egyptian officials say they are willing to expand their cooperation -- but to an extent. "We also need to be alert to the sensitivities involved. The issue of relations between Palestinians and Israelis is not a simple matter for the population of Sinai which has suffered from Israeli occupation for a long time and which shares many family relations with the Palestinians in Gaza," commented one Egyptian official. He said the Egyptian government should be wary about being perceived by the Sinai population as an acting policeman for Israeli security interests. "This is a very serious matter. It will not help anyone. We are being very serious but we cannot push the envelope too far," the same source added.

Egyptian security sources at Rafah remind observers that over the past few months several Egyptian troops have been killed in clashes over the borders, at times by Israeli forces. "These matters are very sensitive to Egyptian public opinion," one Rafah security source said.

In the assessment of informed analysts, the recent tension over the management of the borders is coming to a close in view of extensive talks that have been and will shortly be held between Egyptians, Americans and Israelis. However, failure to contain the plight of the Palestinian pilgrims could re-ignite the situation.

Observers warn of possible riots by Palestinian and for that matter sympathetic Sinai people if the pilgrims remain in limbo in Arish. "Egypt, in response to Israeli pressure, has not opened the borders to allow the pilgrims back into Gaza through the Rafah crossing point. This it is doing despite angry statements made by pilgrims and by Palestinians in Gaza," says Emad Gad, a senior political analyst.

According to Gad, the complaints about the passing of pilgrims through to Egypt on the eve of the holy pilgrimage season was not only made by Israeli officials but also by members of the Palestinian Authority who perceived the Egyptian move as a friendly step on the part of Cairo towards Hamas. "Today, Egypt does not want new Israeli complaints supported by the Palestinian Authority, as was the case when the pilgrims were allowed to pass last month," Gad added.

Gad argued that a compromise needs to be reached with the consent of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and in coordination with Hamas. "Egypt is in a very difficult situation because in addition to worrying about the Israeli and Palestinian Authority positions, it also needs to worry about Hamas which controls Gaza," he said.

The plight of the pilgrims and the borders, Egyptian and Israeli sources say, is unlikely to cause a serious long-term problem between Egypt and Israel, especially if the US administration manages to use its prerogative to end the suspension of the $100 million in military aid.

"The Israelis want us to be in touch with Hamas to help release [their kidnapped soldier Gilad] Shalit and the Palestinian Authority wants our contacts with Hamas to influence the decision of its leaders to give back Gaza. But at times they do not want this relationship," one Egyptian official explained. He said it was well known to Israelis, the Palestinian Authority and for that matter the Americans that Egypt is not very keen on Hamas. The source added, "for strict political purposes we have to keep a channel with Hamas. This would have to include certain gestures on our part. We cannot make our communication with Hamas made to measure to the nods of Israel and the pleasure of everybody in the Palestinian Authority."

In the analysis of certain quarters within official Cairo, what the recent episode shows is somewhat disturbing: it sheds light on how far Israel is willing to go in antagonising Egypt with the support of the Palestinian Authority.

"This is a new factor that has to be carefully addressed," commented one Egyptian official source. He said the recent Fatah-Israeli coordination of stands against Hamas seems to be taking a new shape, one that might at times target Egypt.

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