Israel's Sinai spin
Tel Aviv is trying to paint the attack on Egyptian soldiers in Rafah as the work of Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza, hoping to revive strategic understandings it shared with Mubarak, writes Saleh Al-Naami in Gaza
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Palestinians walk to the Rafah border on the Egyptian side to cross over to Gaza. Egypt opened the Rafah border to allow the return of pilgrims from Saudi Arabia (left); Palestinians pray on the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Ahmed Fayed, 39, was scheduled to make his dream trip to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for omra (the small Islamic pilgrimage) in the last 10 days of Ramadan, something he has longed to do for years. But Fayed's hopes were dashed when Egypt decided to close the border at Rafah after a massacre there killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. Hundreds of Gaza residents had booked pilgrimage trips. The Egyptian decision also compounded humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip.
The decision was taken at the height of summer when activity at this border crossing peaks. This year Palestinians living in Arab and Diaspora states were more confident in travelling to the Gaza Strip to visit their families, feeling that conditions at the border had improved after Mohamed Mursi won the presidential election in Egypt.
Khalil Al-Masri, 49, works in one of the Gulf states and has not visited his family in Gaza for 10 years out of fear that the Rafah border crossing would be closed and that he would be trapped in the Gaza Strip and unable to return to his job. Al-Masri finally made it to the Gaza Strip this year and was planning to leave Saturday. He is worried that the border will remain closed, which could mean that he would lose his job if his employer is not sympathetic to his circumstances.
An even more critical factor is the inability of the sick to leave for medical attention abroad. Samah, 26, who lives in Gaza City, intended to travel to Cairo via Rafah for surgery, but now she has to suffer until the border crossing is opened again.
Undersecretary at the Ministry of Interior and National Security in the Gaza government, Kamel Abu Madi, warned of a crisis because of the border closure that will affect all aspects and segments of Palestinian society. "The ministry has lists of tens of thousands of citizens who want to travel and leave the Gaza Strip for work, health and academic reasons," Abu Madi said. "There are some critical humanitarian cases that need to travel, including life threatening health conditions that need emergency medical attention."
He added that a large number of Palestinian families on travel registries came to Gaza to spend the summer holidays and now the bread earners of those families are threatened with losing their jobs and residency status in host countries if the border crossing remains closed. "The delayed departure of registered travellers could result in a crisis at the border crossing," Abu Madi warned. The Palestinian official urged Egypt's leadership to open the border because of the extreme harm it is causing the Palestinians who have long suffered from repeated border closures, adding that students need to return to their schools and universities abroad.
Gazans are particularly worried that the Rafah attack will hinder the implementation of understandings reached between Mursi and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to lift the siege on the Gaza Strip, scheduled to begin after the Eid Al-Fitr holiday at the end of August. This includes permitting a large number of travellers across the border on a daily basis, prolonging work hours at the border crossing from 9am until 9pm, and slashing the list of those banned from travelling for security reasons. The agreement also included not deporting Gazans from Cairo Airport and an understanding on resolving the electricity problem in the Gaza Strip.
Gazans fear that the Rafah attack will be a pretext to keep the border crossing closed, and even lead to a tighter siege on the Gaza Strip. Salah Al-Bardaweel, a leading Hamas member, denied that his group, Hamas's politburo or Haniyeh's government received "any accusations from Cairo about elements in Gaza" involved in the Rafah massacre. Al-Bardaweel said that, "Egypt did not send any information about involvement of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in this crime, and did not make any specific demands of the Gaza government or Hamas in this context."
He said that Hamas told Egyptian officials that it is "wholeheartedly prepared for joint cooperation in investigating the crime and arresting the perpetrators, irrespective of who they are," and that his group took the initiative by participating with other factions in opening a house for condolences as an expression of sorrow and anger on the Rafah attack. Al-Bardaweel declared that occupation forces "are the ones who benefit from the crime and are involved in the Rafah incident".
There is much speculation in support of this theory. "The Zionist enemy wants to destabilise Egypt's security and embarrass the Egyptian leadership, which it views as hostile to its aggressive plan, and is seeking to rupture ties between Hamas and Egypt after a marked improvement in relations," Al-Bardaweel explained. The Hamas figure added that his group is willing to shut down the tunnels in return for Egypt permanently opening the Rafah border crossing to individuals and goods. Opening the border crossing would also be in solidarity with the resilience of Palestinian people and their resistance to occupation that seeks to Judaise holy sites and kills children, women and the sick. An open border crossing at Rafah is the civilised alternative to the tunnels, he added.
"We are confident that the Egyptian leadership will work on this alternative and hope that the closure does not last too long," he said, "especially since it's the holy month of Ramadan, Eid [the Islamic holiday following the month of fasting] will begin soon, and there is a lot of construction in Gaza to rebuild homes destroyed by the occupation, and to house those who were displaced and have no homes or shelter."
Meanwhile, Israel seemed as if it was anxiously waiting for the Rafah attack in order to serve strategic goals it had long desired. Tel Aviv tried to use the attack to drive a wedge between Egypt and the Gaza Strip after relations flourished since the Egyptian revolution and Mursi's election, claiming that parties in Gaza were involved in the Rafah attack. Yet Roni Daniel, the military reporter on the Israel's Channel 2 Television, and Alon Ben-David, the military expert on Channel 10, reported that Israeli security agencies had no evidence linking Gaza with the Rafah incident.
It is clear that Israeli decision-makers want to limit Mursi's margin of manoeuvrability, to embarrass him at home, and to force him to retract understandings he finalised with Haniyeh on relaxing the siege on Gaza, by claiming that Gaza is responding to Mursi's friendly overtures by targeting Egypt's national security. Tel Aviv is trying to stir Egyptian public opinion against the Palestinian resistance, especially Hamas, analysts say, and this has become a priority for Israel's leadership since it would enable Israel to pound the Gaza Strip.
All reports by Israeli army and intelligence agencies to politicians in Tel Aviv state that carrying out a large scale attack on the Gaza Strip after the 25 January Revolution has become a very difficult task, because of the influence of Egyptian public opinion on decision-makers in Cairo. Reports issued by the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University state that Egyptian public opinion could pressure the Egyptian leadership to review the Camp David Treaty if Israel carried out a large scale attack on Gaza. The studies also warn that the reaction of the Egyptian public could cause Egypt to completely withdraw from the Camp David agreement. Israel believes this agreement is a critical component of its national security.
Thus, framing the Palestinian resistance in the Rafah attack would influence Egyptian public opinion on the Palestinian issue and limit the ability of Egypt's new leadership to revise its foreign policy and reformulate it on an entirely different basis than the one in place under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, especially regarding the Palestinian cause.
In fact, this point was blatantly and openly made by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman who said that Egypt should learn the lesson of what happened in Rafah, and learn to confront "Egypt's true enemies" -- in reference to Palestinian resistance groups in the Gaza Strip.
Israel is thus trying to use the Rafah attack to pressure Cairo to revive the strategic partnership of bygone days under the Mubarak regime.