Egypt's bitter Palestinian harvest
On the Palestinian scene, 2008 was nothing short of catastrophic, Egypt often caught in the middle, writes Samir Ghattas
As far as the Palestinian cause is concerned, 2008 has rightfully been called the year of disaster. But the crises that swept Palestine last year did not crop up suddenly; they germinated in 2007.
The internal Palestinian situation suffered a dangerous and unprecedented blow with the collapse of the Mecca Agreement over a national unity government within three months after Hamas and Fatah signed it. But worse was to come when Hamas decided to shed Palestinian blood and resort to arms to settle its dispute with Fatah. On 8 February 2007, fighting erupted between the two movements in Gaza, culminating in Hamas's seizure of power in Gaza 14 June. The Palestinian rift deepened since then, growing ever more recalcitrant to mediating efforts and becoming one of the key factors in regional developments throughout the rest of that and the subsequent year.
If 2007 opened with the tragic Palestinian schism, it drew to a close with an international conference of sorts that convened in Annapolis 27 November with the aim of reviving a climate conducive to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian Authority (PA) talks that had broken off more than six years earlier. It fell to 2008 to come through on the promise of Annapolis or prove it yet another mirage.
That year only aggravated the grim legacy it inherited from 2007. Not even the first month of 2008 was destined to pass smoothly. In the last week of January, an explosion ripped through the border wall on the so- called Philadelphi Corridor after which thousands of Palestinians from Gaza poured across the crossing at Rafah. The countdown to the Rafah incident began in mid- January when an Israeli military unit infiltrated Gaza and killed 19 members of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. Among those killed was the son of Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, a top Hamas leader in Gaza. Hamas retaliated with heavy missile bombardment of Israeli towns on the other side of the Gaza border. Israel responded by closing the border crossings and tightening its economic stranglehold on Gaza. Instead of directing its anger at Israel, as the party responsible for the blockade and in breach of the Geneva Conventions, Hamas diverted Palestinian anger in the opposite direction, rallying Palestinians at the Gaza border with Egypt and concocting a crisis in Palestinian relations with Cairo.
Egypt handled the Rafah crossing wisely, preventing the occurrence of clashes between Palestinians and Egyptian security forces. Israel, the greatest beneficiary of the rift between Hamas and Fatah and Hamas's steps to deepen the divide between the West Bank and Gaza, was quick to capitalise on the situation. As it had long wanted to do, it attempted to shed its responsibility for Gaza by forcing Egypt to assume it. On 24 January 2008, the Israeli daily Maarev voiced the plan bluntly: "The Egyptians should take responsibility for the security of Gaza."
Egyptian authorities quickly moved to put paid to that plan and, simultaneously, alleviate the strains on the Palestinian people from the economic boycott. Cairo then sought to turn the crisis into an opportunity. After another round of violence similar to that taking place in Gaza today, Egypt stepped in and successfully brokered a truce that went into effect 19 June 2008. Egyptian diplomatic activity then shifted into high gear in an attempt to end the internal Palestinian rift, reunite the PA and restore the unity of the Palestinian people and their cause. In September, Cairo invited all Palestinian factions, each in turn, in order to hear their ideas and positions, after which it formulated a working paper containing the fundamental points in common. These were to serve as the basis of a comprehensive Palestinian national dialogue scheduled in Cairo 11 November 2008. Apparently, the Egyptian drive provoked various states and regional forces that, however they may have differed on everything else, were in tacit agreement that the Palestinian rift should remain wide open.
About a week before the dialogue was to take place, Israel, which sees it in its strategic interest to keep Hamas-controlled Gaza isolated and separated from the West Bank, mounted a raid into Gaza. Iran and Syria, for their part, pressured Hamas and other pro-Hamas factions such as the Islamic Jihad and Al-Saeqa, into boycotting the dialogue on various feeble pretexts. Obviously, these machinations were part of the regional power struggle in the Middle East on the part of forces that believe it in their interests to curtail Egypt's influence and that sought to wield the Palestinian card to further their own regional agendas. The Egyptian drive to reunify the Palestinians threatened their hold on that card.
Also during the foregoing year, at the request of Hamas and Israel, Egypt attempted to broker a prisoner exchange deal in accordance with which captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit would be returned to Israel. Egyptian mediation has so far failed in this objective, in part due to Israeli intransigence but also in part due to Hamas's desire to hold on to Shalit as long as possible as a kind of guarantee against an Israeli offence targeting Hamas leaders.
The year was fated to end on an even grimmer note than it began. On 19 December, Hamas declared that it would no longer abide by the ceasefire with Israel in the course of which 23 Palestinians were killed, 64 wounded and 38 captured while the other side endured some shelling with no loss of life. It was clear from the outset that Hamas's intent was to hold out for better conditions for a ceasefire. Not prepared to meet these conditions, Israel responded to the Hamas tactic by threatening military action. Egypt moved quickly to defuse the situation, in spite of the hostile media campaign launched against it by Tehran and Damascus that accused Egypt of complicity in the blockade of Gaza. Indeed, on 22 December, Israeli military Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi stated that the only thing keeping the Israeli army from invading Gaza was the pledge that Olmert had made to Mubarak not to undertake such an offensive. Still, tensions mounted and, in an intensification of its efforts, Egypt asked Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to come to Cairo. In the course of this visit, which took place on 25 December, Mubarak asked her to exercise restraint and persuaded her to open Gaza's border crossings in order to allow in urgent humanitarian relief. Sadly, before the world crossed the threshold into 2009, Israel launched its offensive.
In all, 2008 left a very bitter taste. The peace process remained inert, the negotiations producing nothing, the promise of a Palestinian state never seeing so much as a glimmer of light. The Palestinian rift has deepened and is heading towards total and permanent rupture, national dialogue aborted before it ever started, Gaza under bombardment even as these lines are being written, all while the Israeli ultra-nationalist and religious right is preparing to sweep the forthcoming elections. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is preoccupied with remedying the global economic crisis. In spite of Egyptian efforts, 2008 brought us back to square one. But we can still hope for a better year ahead and a better world.