The newly elected President of Egypt, Muhammad Morsi, confronted his greatest challenge to date in brokering a cease-fire between Hamas and Gaza last week – and by almost all accounts, he passed with flying colors. The agreement ended nearly two weeks of intense violence on both sides, which resulted in more than one hundred and fifty deaths and thousands of wounded. Conducted under the auspices of the Egyptian government, the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel will provide welcome relief to both sides of the conflict. However, it still remains only a temporary measure.
The issues at the heart of the conflict – the Israeli imposed siege of Gaza and the rampant smuggling operations caused thereby – have not yet been addressed. In discovering a long term solution, President Morsi finds himself caught between two equally untenable and distasteful positions: embracing his country’s long-standing (though often cold and bitter) détente with Israel and supporting a besieged Hamas with historical and ideological ties to his own Muslim Brotherhood party. He must also attempt to chart a path between the rocky shores of his two biggest sources of support: the American government and the Egyptian public.
Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniya, the leaders of Hamas, as well as Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, have all expressed their desire for a more permanent settlement. Israel seeks an end to the ever-present threat of rockets that can now reach the most populated areas of the country. Hamas seeks an end to the Israeli enforced blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has crippled the territory’s economy and made it increasingly uninhabitable. Standing at the intersection point of all these demands is Egypt.
Security of the Border
The key to establishing a long-term peace between Gaza and Israel lies in the security of the Egypt-Gaza border. Smuggling operations have become widespread in the city of Rafah, the principle crossing point straddling the border, and are largely to blame for the influx of advanced weaponry fielded by Hamas in recent years. Since Israel’s unilateral breakup of settlements and withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, security for the border region has fallen largely on the Egyptian military. Known as the “Philadelphi Strip,” the 8.2 mile-long corridor immediately adjacent to the Gaza border has always been difficult to secure even in the best of times. Since the revolution in January of 2011, security of the broad, largely empty swath of territory in the Sinai has become nearly impossible for the Egyptian military to maintain.
Frequent bombings by local Bedouin tribes and cross-border terrorist attacks on Israel have shown how little power the government in Cairo has to govern this area. The most well known case being the August 2011 attack in which a Palestinian militant group traversed the border from Egypt into Israel killing eight and provoking an Israeli response that resulted in the deaths of five Egyptian police officers.
Egypt’s inability to patrol and secure its eastern border has lead to an explosion in smuggling operations into Gaza. Longer-distance rockets and heavy mortars that were fielded in the latest outburst of violence are not the only evidence of this. Numerous photographs have surfaced in the past week that show fighters of the Qassam Brigades (the armed and militant wing of Hamas) carrying advanced small arms, which have been traced back to Libya.
President Morsi finds himself in a difficult position. While popular Egyptian opinion dictates he refrain from being Israel’s “enforcer” at the border, he has little choice but to attempt the role. $1.2 billion worth of American support for the Egyptian military rides on his being able to satisfactorily interdict smuggling into Gaza. If the United States perceives that Egypt is not doing enough to secure the border and prevent weapons smuggling, future American funding may be jeopardized as well as the $4.8 billion currently being negotiated with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - financing which is crucial to getting the decimated Egyptian economy running again.
At the same time, though it may be unpopular on the streets of Cairo, the Egyptian government maintains an interest in a well-secured border with Gaza. The same security concerns that forced closure during the era of former President Hosni Mubarak are still present: namely, the threat of a flood of Gazan refugees. Egypt got a sampling of what this crisis might look like in January of 2008, when Palestinians literally battered down the border fence and more than 200,000 Palestinians flooded into the Sinai.
The cease-fire agreement brokered by Egypt recognizes the centrality of cross-border movement into and out of Gaza. This includes not only smuggling operations to Gaza and the importance of a reasonable border security arrangement, but also the cessation of the Israeli blockade of Gaza by land, sea, and air. The one-page “understanding” regarding the cease-fire calls for “opening the crossing and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods” to and from Gaza. At the same time that Egypt must enforce border security from its side, so too must Israel ensure the unimpeded movement of licit goods to and from Gaza. One is necessary for the other and both are necessary to avert future conflict.
The Israeli blockade combined with an unsecured Gaza-Egypt border is the biggest obstacle to a sustainable security solution. The Egyptian military is incapable of halting the smuggling of weapons into Gaza and as long as the Strip is under blockade, smuggling will be necessary and inevitably continue. Hamas’s recent victory will only compel it to invest further in the importation of weaponry through the tunnels at Rafah. A likely outcome may be a reversion to the prior arrangement in which maintenance and security of the Egypt-Gaza border were under the joint administration of the European Union (EUBAM, the EU Border Assistance Mission) and Palestinian Authority (PA).
Egypt, in negotiating the current cease-fire has positioned itself as the primary arbiter in the dispute, but it is still unclear how successful Egypt can be in negotiating a long-term solution to the problem. Popular support in Egypt of Hamas will constrain the Egyptian government to a degree, but a reformed border security arrangement in Egypt will negate most of the current Israeli justification for the blockade of Gaza and benefit all parties.