In all the talk of the siege, blockade and humanitarian disaster of Gaza, one small inconvenient detail almost always goes unmentioned. Gaza has a second border in addition to the one with Israel: a small but potentially useful border with its Arab sister, Egypt.
Three-and-a-half years ago, when the international community was still hopefully predicting a peaceful outcome to Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the Egyptians were self-importantly promising to play a major role in the security arrangements from the day after the pullout.
A well-regulated and secure crossing at Rafah could have solved most of the current problems. It could have let through normal food and medical supplies for the Palestinians, allowed them travel and made a mockery of the claims that Israel and its allies have turned the Strip into a gigantic prison.
But despite signing the Philadelphi Agreement that allowed it to station many more troops in the demilitarised Sinai peninsula, and receiving European assistance to control the border-crossing, Egypt has failed to police it. Instead it sealed the border and forced back Palestinians who tried to break through. This was also a misguided policy on the part of Israel, which urged and supported the Egyptian blockade.
That does not mean, of course, that goods have not passed through the border; they just had to be transported under it. Egyptian officials from President Hosni Mubarak downwards have defied anyone who mentions this smuggling, telling them to bring proof that arms are being brought in to Gaza through tunnels originating in Egypt. They can confidently do that, as the Egyptians do everything possible to deter international monitors and journalists from touring the Egyptian side of Rafah.
As a result, just a handful of reporters have visited the area, always chaperoned by armed police. And none have ever managed to see the hundreds of entry-holes hidden in houses and shacks and maintained by a conglomerate of Bedouin and Palestinian gangs. That such a thriving industry can exist without the knowledge of the authorities in an area so closely policed is inconceivable.
The tunnels flourish thanks to Egyptian corruption and malfeasance, but they also serve a purpose for the regime. They allow the Palestinians just enough room to supply their basic needs without exploding in undesirable directions. Over recent years there has been much talk of an Egyptian peacekeeping force to be stationed within Gaza, but aside from a desultory delegation, it never amounted to much. The Egyptians — still traumatised by their disastrous intervention in Yemen in the 1960s — are too wary to endanger their own troops in that particular swamp. Instead they act as brokers; inviting Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Cairo for pointless talks and keeping their own channels open to the Hamas leadership.
Israel is fully aware of Mubarak’s two-faced game and the Palestinians know what his real feelings are towards them. The 70,000 Palestinian refugees living in Egypt have no rights whatsoever and are even denied assistance from UNRWA, unlike their relatives living in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. But neither Israelis nor Palestinians are prepared to offend the Grand Old Lady of the Arab World.
It is unreasonable to demand that the Israelis antagonise the first Arab nation to make peace with them and the only go-between it has for negotiating Gilad Shalit’s release. But the international community could play a positive role if it stopped treating Egypt as a respectable mediator. So far, the Egyptians have fiercely resisted any suggestion of stationing an international peacekeeping force in Rafah, seeing it as an effrontery to their sovereignty and military capabilities.
Egypt’s American and European benefactors should realise that for now, Egypt is part of the problem. Pressure should be brought on it to force it to come up with some solutions.