Coming ashore in Gaza
tries to understand what Egypt is up to on the Strip
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GET OUT: The red card, normally flashed by a referee for an infraction which sends a player off the football pitch, has taken on new meaning. Perhaps in keeping with the spirit of the ongoing World Cup in South Africa, this particular red card was shown to Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian demonstrator for the latest violation: the demolishing of Palestinian farmland which Israel seeks to use for a new settlement north of the West Bank town of Hebron
"It would be a disaster." This was how one senior Egyptian official reacted to a question from Al-Ahram Weekly on a possible replay of the Marmara attack by which Israeli forces attacked, killed and wounded civilians aboard a Turkish ship in the international waters before it managed to deliver humanitarian aid to the besieged Gaza late last month.
According to this senior Egyptian official, Egypt is "very worried about this Mariam story". Mariam is the Arabic name for Virgin Mary. It is the name chosen by a group of nuns and ladies, mostly Lebanese, for a ship that they say will "shortly" leave Lebanon to Cyprus and from there to Gaza.
Israel had openly warned that it would use force -- not excluding a replay of the Marmara bloodshed -- to stop Mariam. For its part Lebanon has officially told the UN that it would hold Israel responsible for any attack on its civilians be they aboard Mariam, that Lebanese Minister of Transportation Ghazi Aridi said is still only an idea, or Julia or Nagui Al-Ali that seem set to ship the Mediterranean to Cyprus and then to Gaza. Hizbullah members have been on air warning Israel against targeting Lebanese citizens and announcing their intention to avenge any harm that the Israeli army would inflict over the Lebanese.
Egyptian sources say that Cairo has sent a clear alert to Lebanon on the matter. According to one source, "We had expected an Israeli rough handling of Marmara -- but not to the extent of what we saw -- and we warned our Turkish friends. Today we warned our Lebanese brothers." Egypt, he added, is "not prepared or willing" to take part directly or indirectly in handling the processing of the Lebanese aid to Gaza or to attend to a state of emergency should disaster strike "and this a scenario that should not be excluded".
Egypt does not actually favour very much the new trend to send ships carrying humanitarian support to Gaza. "This talk about breaking the siege. Those are platitudes and things do not work that way," commented an Egyptian official.
The overwhelming thinking in Cairo is that for the siege that Israel has imposed on the impoverished Strip since the Hamas take over of Gaza in July 2007, Hamas has to give up its control of Gaza and to accept the prompt re-instatement of the Palestinian Authority there. Short of this, Cairo is not really expecting an end to the Israeli siege on Gaza or for that matter an end to the tough restrictions that Egyptian authorities have imposed on the operation of the Rafah Crossing Point, linking Gaza to the outside world away from the Israeli control, during the past three years.
"Hamas has to sign on to the reconciliation paper," said Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit in press statements this week. The proposed Egyptian reconciliation paper, on the table since late last year, is meant to end the rift between Hamas and Fatah, in charge of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has declined to sign the paper on the basis that the final draft failed to match the earlier blueprints in terms of reflecting the Hamas perspective on sharing power and political decisions.
Mediation conducted last week by Arab League Secretary-General to try and find a compromise by getting Hamas and Fatah to sign a pre- reconciliation document based on a new set of Hamas-Fatah understandings failed to pick up. Also unsuccessful were attempts conducted by the Arab League and some regional capitals to get Egypt to provide Hamas with guarantees that its concerns over the reconciliation paper would be accommodated once the Palestinian Authority finds its way back to Gaza.
Tuesday, a Fatah delegation cancelled a trip to Gaza and to the Hamas political leaders in Damascus arranged to reach a format to contain the Palestinian split. The cancellation was prompted by what some sources qualified as an Egyptian concern that any new arrangements would ultimately sideline the Egyptian reconciliation paper -- something that Cairo cannot tolerate.
"Hamas has to sign the reconciliation paper as no amendment and no annexes are allowed from our side," Abul-Gheit stated this week.
"And we will not. We simply will not. Egypt does not accept the legitimacy of Hamas in Gaza and that is its problem but by acting on this basis it is failing to secure the reconciliation it has been preaching," said a Hamas member.
What Egypt wants, according to one informed source, is for Hamas to sign the reconciliation paper first and then for any further arrangements to be discussed later. This stance, the same source added, is not just inspired by Cairo's unwelcoming position on Hamas -- widely perceived in many official quarters in Egypt as "an Iranian agent" and "an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to Egyptian and foreign sources in Cairo, Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority himself, is not willing -- despite any public statements that he might make -- to get Hamas victorious out of Gaza after three years of what he still qualifies privately as the "coup of Hamas". Israel, for its part, has made it clear to Cairo, and indeed to Washington, that it will not allow Hamas to use the Marmara incident, or for that matter a future Mariam incident, to break free and be accepted politically. For its part, the US has not yet lifted a veto it has made last winter over any possible political re-integration of Hamas. Arab and European capitals acknowledge this veto.
Apart from signing the reconciliation paper, Hamas could secure more Egyptian sympathy and cooperation if it showed "more flexibility" on concluding the prisoners' swap deal by which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit could be released in return for a few hundred Palestinian prisoners.
"We have shown as much flexibility as possible but Israel does not want this deal to be done," commented a Damascus-based Hamas source. He did not exclude "movement" in the future on the matter but was not committing.
Hamas members complain that Cairo has been holding its relation with the Islamic resistance movement hostage to its concerns over Iran, the Islamic political movements in general and to the positions of the US and Israel -- some add the political fragility of Abbas. They add that the Egyptian positions on all matters related to Gaza are essentially inspired by the Egyptian thinking of Hamas rather than an Egyptian thinking of Palestinians in Gaza.
For their part, Egyptian officials insist that Cairo is doing what it could to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and if Hamas is so worried about the interests of Palestinians in Gaza then they should "give up".
Marmara, Mariam and Julia, the same Egyptian officials add, could help Hamas leaders receive some attention and might indeed force Israel to slightly ease the siege it imposed on Gaza. They believe that lifting the siege is related to a political decision by Hamas to give up the control of Gaza.