Monday, 29 December 2008

Blockading Gaza


Not being an Israel-Palestine afficianado, it may well be that I'm missing something. But it has often struck me as strange that in all the acres of coverage of the Gaza dispute there is almost never any mention of the border with Egypt.

Thus Israel is routinely criticised for blockading Gaza - and thus starving its inhabitants of vital supplies - yet the same criticism is rarely extended to Egypt which is at least as rigorous as Israel when it comes to keeping its side of the border closed. "Israel withdrew in 2005 but has kept tight control over access in and out of Gaza and its airspace," explains a report on the BBC website - glossing over the fact that Israel has no power to control access along the southern border with Egypt. If Gaza is cut off, it is cut off by both its neighbours, not just one.

Here's the Guardian, for another example:


We do not know how many civilians died in the assault which Israel launched on Hamas in Gaza at 11.30am on Saturday, because Israel prevents foreign journalists as well as Israeli ones from entering the strip.


That should be Israel AND EGYPT.

It was reported by the Press Association yesterday that Egyptian border guards had opened fire on Palestinians who were attempting to flee the Israeli assaults by crossing into Egypt. Which, considering that (we are told) that the inhabitants of Gaza were being blown to bits indiscriminately by the wicked Israelis, seems a little bit, well, disproportionate.

An Egyptian security official said there were at least five breaches along the nine-mile border and hundreds of Palestinian residents were pouring in. At least 300 Egyptian border guards have been rushed to the area to reseal the border, the official added on condition on anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press.


You won't have heard this on story on the BBC, any more than you would hear it on the government-controlled Egyptian media. Why not? Hamas propaganda? Unlikely: even Hamas want to talk about it. Reuters quoted Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as saying on Saturday, "The simplest response to the massacre today is to reopen Rafah crossing once and for all. I tell our Arab brothers that the simplest response to the massacre is to end the siege."

For the Israelis, the justification for keeping the border - much of the time - closed is security. No-one questions the fact that Hamas, since it came to power in Gaza, has turned the overcrowded statelet into a terrorist camp, firing rockets into Israeli territory on an almost daily basis. Their tactic resembles that of someone who, finding himself trapped in a cage with a fierce but generally lethargic lion, thinks it's a good idea to poke the beast repeatedly with a stick - and then complains loudly when the lion turns round and starts to bite. It is an idiotic tactic as well as a cynical one. Designed to provoke Israel to acts that can be portrayed in the western media as "disproportionate" and in the Arab world as murderous aggression, it is not what one that would make any sense if Hamas actually cared about the people of Gaza - or at least if it cared about them as much as it cares about destroying Israel.

But what of Egypt? What's their excuse for blockading Gaza? In many ways, they don't need one, because their blockade goes unreported. Unlike Israel, Egypt isn't subjected to daily barrages of Iranian-supplied rockets aimed at its civilian population. On the other hand, the Egyptian government clearly has no love of Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood which for several decades now has pursued its aim of taking over Egypt and turning it into an Islamic state. Perhaps they worry that if it allowed free access to and from the territory it would effectively become part of Egypt, and that they would be forced to deal with Hamas themselves. There's little doubt (though you won't hear them publicly admit the fact) that the Egyptian authorites were delighted to get shot of the place in 1967, just as the Israelis were almost four decades later when they pulled out in 2005. I expect they're also worried about immigration, and want to keep the Americans happy. All excellent reasons, no doubt. But I can find no such good explanation for the silence about these facts in the western media.

Is it, perhaps, that an Arab regime behaving badly simply isn't news?

15 comments:

septicisle said...

You exaggerate wildly about Israel being targeted by hundreds of missiles every day. During the truce, for the most part next to no missiles were fired, and if they were, it was groups other than Hamas doing so. Israel's response to this was to continue to institute its policy of starving Gaza while not actually allowing anyone to starve to death. Egypt's role in this is irrelevant: Gaza is Israeli territory, not Egyptian. They block the border almost certainly under Israeli pressure, and judging by the apparent connivance between Egypt and Israel recently the two may as well as be one and the same.

valdemar squelch said...

Egypt is a Muslim Arab nation isn't it? So why doesn't it help the people of Gaza? Why not at least send food and medical aid? Or does it benefit the Mubarak regime to have Arab attention focused on Israel and not, say, corrupt Arab dicatators?

Gaza is not, incidentally, Israeli territory - it's sovereign Palestinian territory. The rockets fired from its soil are therefore aggressive acts by one nation state againt another. Yes, they are very unequal. All the more reason for Hamas to exert as much effort at stopping the firing of missiles as it did during its power struggle with Fatah.

Good post, H. The Egyptian question has been bugging me for a while, too.

Allan said...

I don't completely understand either of the two previous comments.

It is true that fewer rockets were fired during the truce, but the fact that some were fired shows that there is a significant minority of Palestinians that seeks a continuation of the conflict. The idea that Egypt controls its border with Gaza "under Israeli pressure" is ridiculous; Mubarak rarely listens to anyone, let alone a lame duck Israeli PM. As Valdemar says, Egypt will do anything to spite Hamas, even if it harms the Palestinians in the process.

As for the rest of Valdemar's comment, the answer to the question regarding corrupt Arab regimes is clearly "yes". Sorry to answer a rhetorical question, but I couldn't resist...

To the best of my knowledge, no-one seriously regards any territory as "sovereign Palestinian territory". I believe the correct term for the West Bank/Judea & Samaria, and Gaza, is "the occupied (Palestinian) territories". While this point might be academic, the rockets certainly don't represent the actions of a nation state as there is no state of Palestine, yet. They represent civil unrest or terrorism, depending on your point of view. (The idea that they are a legitimate form of resistance is laughable.)

Both previous commentators seem to believe that Israel and Egypt have been working together - I find this highly unlikely. The two countries tolerate each other, at best, and Israel is still stung by Egypt's failure to secure its border during the breakout a few months ago.

However, I must concur that the main point of the original article is well made.

valdemar squelch said...

Hi Allan

I certainly don't think Israel and Egypt co-operate in a true sense, so my comment was poorly worded.

I'm also not an expert on the Middle East (surprise!) but I always assumed - perhaps wrongly - that if there are 'occupied territories' they must, by default, belong to some state or other. I vaguely recall Jordan giving up its territorial claim to the West Bank, for instance. But I could be a hundred per cent wrong.

The Heresiarch said...

If Gaza is an "occupied territory", who exactly is occupying it? Not the Israelis. Presumably Hamas. (Btw, Septicisle, I never said "hundreds" of missiles every day. By my calculations it averages out at around 20: that's more or less a "daily barrage", even if it doesn't happen every day. Not nice if you live in (uncontested) Israeli territory and you get hit by one of the things. "Groups other than Hamas?" Seeing that Hamas controls the territory and hasn't done much to control the "other groups" I don't think they can be absolved of responsibility so easily.

Allan said...

The term "occupied Palestinian territories" (OPT), when used to refer to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, has a special meaning. While it is correct to say that, if a territory is occupied, it must "belong to some state or other", this does not really apply to the OPT. In my opinion, this is because of the convoluted history of the region and the regular exchange of lands between different sovereign powers. For example, the West Bank was once part of the Ottoman Empire; then it was part of the British Palestine Mandate; then it was taken by Jordan; then it remained in a sort of limbo until the Six Day War of 1967, when Israel captured/annexed it (take your pick); then Jordan withdrew its claims; now the Palestinians claim it as part of a future State of Palestine. So it's not really clear which sovereign power "owns" the OPT, but it is clear that the OPT's residents don't want to be part of Israel. [Please feel free to poke holes in the preceeding history of the Middle East, I just wanted to get my point across, namely that the West Bank changes hands like a hot potato.)

Finally, on the "groups other than Hamas": while Hamas control the Gaza Strip, they cannot control the dozens of independent resistance/terrorist groups (again, take your pick) that operate on their watch. Some of these groups largely support Hamas, but ignored the recent ceasefire; others despise Hamas and frequently attack their institutions. Cynics argue that the latter also fired rockets during the ceasefire in the hope that Israel would do what it is now doing: attack Hamas directly. What I am quite sure of is that Hamas are not in complete control.

septicisle said...

I'm not sure where I got hundreds from; I apologise for that oversight. On Egyptian/Israeli co-operation, it certainly is true that much of Egypt's current policy seems to be based around spiting Hamas, but it seems very fishy indeed that Tzipi Livni just happened to visit Egypt on Thursday, photographed with their first minister, hand in hand at one point. Two days later Gaza just happens to go up in smoke. It sure as hell seems to have at the very least resembled fair warning, and Egypt's denunciations of the action have been far from convincing also, although again much of the Arab response, excepting Syria and Iran, has been muted, again because of their opposition to Hamas.

Hamas also has cracked down fiercely on other groups in Gaza, Fatah obviously, but also the Army of Islam, which kidnapped Alan Johnson and which was more or less decimated a few months back. To be able to expect Hamas to stop every rocket launch by Islamic Jihad or the assorted other groups in Gaza is ridiculous. Hamas only majorly broke its word during the ceasefire over the smuggling tunnels, and considering the fact that most of those don't involve weapons but food and other stable goods which Israel has almost total control over you can hardly blame them for that either. This assault is all about Israeli domestic politics and the upcoming election, not Hamas. They are merely the excuse.

Allan said...

Septicisle: you make several good points, although I still refuse to accept that Israel and Egypt are somehow cooperating in the current campaign. However, it seems reasonable that Egypt would have been warned of Israel's plans.

Who broke the ceasefire first and whether they did so "majorly" or not is, in my opinion, irrelevant since neither side really knew the exact terms of the ceasefire. It seems to me that Hamas saw the whole thing as a "hudna", or lull, rather than a ceasefire as it's understood elsewhere; such events have had little impact in the past.

I take the point about Israeli domestic politics, but I do not accept that Hamas are an "excuse" - that's like saying that the Argentinians were an excuse for Falklands War. (Sorry to any non-Brits out there!) As usual, this operation is the result of a combination of circumstances, but I think it all stems from the Olmert government's incompetence with regard to the planning and execution of the 2006 war in Lebanon: Israeli politicians don't like to retire/lose an election without at least a minor military victory under their belts. It is often forgotten that Israeli politicians considered "centrist" are often to the right of (American) Democrats and (British) Conservatives; Olmert is one such "centrist". At first I thought Livni would make a significant difference to Israeli policy, but given her recent interviews (to the BBC and others) regarding the current situation, I'm now rather less optimistic. I hope that she's at least more competent than Olmert and won't launch military operations without any thought of victory conditions.

As an aside, this reflects how I think about US President-Elect Obama: at first I thought he would change the world, or at least American foreign policy, but now it seems he'll just tinker around the edges. He'll go on a world tour, return to the White House, and everything will be much the same.

WeepingCross said...

The Egyptian policy over the Gaza border was actually discussed this morning on the Today programme, albeit in short order and only via an interview with one of the BBC's own correspondents. He ascribed their unwillingness to open the border to dislike of Hamas, desire to support Mahmoud Abbas, and not wanting to own the problem. Make of that what you will.

The Heresiarch said...

What struck me most about that interview was the way the correspondent was so keen to absolve Egypt from any blame for the blockade - so different from how they discuss Israel. It was actually claimed - and not questioned - that to allow supplies in through the Egyptian border with somehow undermine Fatah. Egypt really is getting a free ride from the Beeb. But why?

valdemar squelch said...

'Egypt really is getting a free ride from the Beeb. But why?'

a. Anti-Israeli prejudice blinds Beebsters to any other Middle Eastern government behaving badly?

b. Old-style pro-Arabist feeling of the sort prevalent in the FCO and - presumably - other bits of the establishment?

c. Israel is a democracy and its behaviour is held to higher standards than corrupt dictatorships?

d. Israel is a democracy and therefore it's easier for journos to operate there and get proper interviews, etc? This has the paradoxical effect of always making it easier to criticise free nations because you can do it 'from the inside' (cf Zimbabwe).

e. Or maybe the BBC is actually run by Egyptians? Not fuggin' likely, but you never know.

The Heresiarch said...

The one thing I'd add to your list is that if Egypt's behaviour is subjected to proper scrutiny the story suddenly becomes a lot more complicated than the easy "Israel bombing innocent civilians" narrative that works well on the mass media because bombings make for good visual images.

valdemar squelch said...

True enough. And if an Arab regime bombs civilians, no journalists are going to be allowed anywhere near to send back those heartrending TV pictures. Which is why I had no idea at the time that this had happened...

'The Hama massacre occurred on February 2, 1982 when the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama in order to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood. An estimated 7,000 to 25,000 people were killed, including about 1,000 soldiers.'

From Wikipedia. Makes Israel look amateurish.

Edwin said...

Excellent piece Heresiarch.

mumfie said...

There is a recent article (Jan 5) on this exact topic which may interest you Egypt government feels its people's ire