Egypt Lifts the Gaza Siege

Egypt’s military leaders open up the Gaza border, providing relief to millions of trapped Palestinians.

The strategy, often referred to as “the siege,” was a cornerstone of Israel’s campaign against the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. The ploy started in 2007, when the Islamist militant group clashed with forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. After a brief period of Palestinian infighting, the United States, Mahmoud Abbas and Israel woke up the next morning with an Hamas foothold miles away from Israel’s southern community. Hamas not only won the battle against an American backed Palestinian Authority but did so in the most impressive way — by watching Fatah soldiers cower out of the coastal territory with their heads down and their comrades in Hamas’ prisons.

From that day on, the Israeli government, with the support of the United States, initiated a containment policy designed to back Hamas into an untenable position. Land routes between Gaza and Israel were shut down, stopping the trade that Palestinians inside the strip depended on for basic food staples and commodities. Ships traveling toward Gaza through Mediterranean were intercepted by Israeli vessels, searched and turned back to their original sailing points. 1.5 million Palestinians were boxed into a stretch of land barely twice the size of Washington DC. And after Israel’s 2008-2009 military operation in the strip, thousands of buildings were destroyed and deliberately prevented from being repaired.

The siege was a classic campaign of attrition. By depriving Palestinians in the strip and making their lives uncomfortable, the Israelis hoped that the population would turn against Hamas out of frustration. The security problem in Gaza might not be solved entirely but Israel’s main foe would at least suffer a setback. One Israeli military official described the siege as an effort to put Palestinians “on a diet.”

Four years into the strategy, Hamas is still in power, the Israelis are becoming more isolated in the international community and Gaza is perhaps the most poverty stricken area in the greater Middle East. The cutoff not only failed in its main goal — toppling Hamas — but proved unable to stem the flow of weapons into militant hands. Instead of using land routes and border crossings, Hamas simply dug underground, smuggling in RPGs, shoulder fired rockets, anti-aircraft missiles and firearms.

The Egyptians, long leery of the siege in the first place, decided this weekend to lift their part of the blockade. While Palestinians between the ages of eighteen to forty are still required to obtain a visa before crossing into Egypt, thousands of Palestinians who have been waiting to visit family members on the other side of the fence will now be afforded the opportunity to travel.

The announcement comes in stark contrast to the former regime of Hosni Mubarak which was eager to close its border with the Gaza Strip in order to prevent Hamas from infiltrating the Sinai Peninsula if not mainland Egypt. Mubarak was in no way sympathetic to Hamas’ ideology of resistance, which went against everything Egyptian foreign policy had stood for since its signing of the Camp David Accords. Hamas also represents itself as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most popular opposition movement and Mubarak’s most formidable political foe. Distancing the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood from Hamas was therefore a top priority for Mubarak and participating in the Israeli led siege a surefire way of advocating it.

But Mubarak is now gone, swept away by his own people and camped out in a military hospital. The Egyptian military, now running the country on an interim basis, is well tuned to what Egyptians think. The Gaza embargo was widely despised by the Egyptian masses, who tended to see the scheme through a humanitarian lens rather than as a security precaution. The fact that their country was heavily involved and knowingly complicit in the suffering of the Palestinian people rubbed many Egyptians the wrong way. Lifting the blockade is therefore in large part a product of Egypt’s revolution. Diplomatically, the measure was also an inducement that the Egyptians made in order to persuade Hamas to sign a recent unity agreement with their Fatah rivals in the West Bank.

Egypt and the Gaza Strip are connected once again. The Israeli government will not like it, nor will they respect their new Egyptian partners for shifting course. But it may just push Israel into a new frame of mind with respect to the peace process. The Egyptians are trying to do their part by unifying Palestinian factions; the Arab League has done its part by promising normal diplomatic relations for Israel in the event of a solution; the United Nations will do their part in September by supporting a Palestinian state. The Israelis might as well do their part by implementing what every impartial Middle East negotiator has been arguing for — an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, mutually agreed land swaps to account for major Jewish settlements and the formation of a state ruled by Palestinians without an exhausting and draining occupation.