Special from Israel: Gaza poised to escalate Egyptian-Israeli tensions in post-Mubarak era

Jaffa, Israel — Only hours after widespread unrest forced the abdication of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in mid-February, Hamas leaders in Gaza sensed the beginning of a new era.

“Soon Egypt will regain its rightful position in the Arab World,” said Mahmoud al-Zahar, foreign minister of the Hamas-government in Gaza.
Al-Zahar called on the new Egyptian leaders to open the Rafah-border in southern Gaza, adding, in a ‘by the way’ manner, that maybe time had come for Egypt to take another glance at its 1979 peace agreement with Israel. And the calls from Hamas did not fall on deaf ears in Cairo.
The Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Egypt's temporary authority, has signaled that the days of long, complete closures of Gaza, in place since Hamas took over in 2007, are over. And Egyptian politicians, including presidential candidates Arab League head Amr Moussa and Mohamad ElBaradei, former chief of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, have indicated similar stances.
But while Israel fears any measure that may ease the smuggling of weapons from Iran to Hamas or strengthen the group’s grip on the enclave, a new regime might also play into the hands of the Israelis. Egypt could soon find itself facing a reality it has sought to avoid for decades.
Already back in 1978, when then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sat face to face for the first time with his enemy Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at the Camp David presidential resort in the US, he tried to “unload” responsibility over Gaza onto the Egyptians. Sadat, with clear memories of the days of Egyptian control over Gaza from 1948 till 1967, said a clear and unequivocal "no thanks."
If post-Mubarak Egypt now opens the borders to the territory, Israel hopes to turn Cairo into the party to address for any international demand regarding the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Giora Eiland, a long-time senior advisor to Israeli governments, has repeatedly suggested Israel close its borders with Gaza, and have Egypt deal with the new reality on ground.
Today, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lets international aid organizations bring food and medicines across the border into Gaza, concern for the Palestinian civilian population among some Israelis can hardly be overstated. Gisha, an Israeli human rights group, recently took the Israeli ministry of defense to court and forced the ministry to admit the existence of a highly controversial document: The ministry had calculated the needs — in calories — of the Palestinian civil population in order to know how little food could be sent in, while still avoiding starvation and hunger. For human rights organization this was evidence of Israel's “collective punishment” of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza.
Israel currently holds the onus of responsibility for any issue concerning the humanitarian situation within Gaza in the eyes of the international community. And with the new post-Mubarak era in Cairo soon potentially characterized by heightened tensions with Israel, the Egypt-Gaza-Israel threesome could indeed quickly become a violent ménage à trois.
After the Palestinian civil war in Gaza during the summer of 2007, Israel’s concern with the small coastal strip increased its military character suddenly. Already fighting an Iranian-supported militant Islamist group in the north, the Lebanese Hizbullah, Israel feared facing another Iranian-armed Islamist group now along its southern front.
Egypt’s concern with the Gaza border after the Hamas takeover was, on the other hand, less a military and more a political issue. President Hosni Mubarak feared Hamas could inspire and strengthen Islamist groups in Cairo. With Mubarak gone, the political map of Egypt has changed.
Hamas and Israel have clashed for the first time in the past week since Mubarak’s ouster. In the view of Israel, the outbreak of the fighting in early April cannot be disconnected from the dramatic changes inside Egypt.
“Hamas feels it has greater political maneuverability, and is now trying to set new red lines vis-à-vis Israel,” says Zvi Yehezkiel, a well-known analyst with Israel's Channel 10. “It is trying to establish a whole new terror balance.”
Within days in early April, Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza fired several hundred missiles at Israeli cities, including Beersheba, one of the country’s largest urban centers, and Ashdod, just south of Tel Aviv. More than 750,000 Israelis were ordered into their bomb shelters. And Israel responded with deadly force. More than 19 Palestinians, including senior Hamas leaders, were killed in fighter jet attacks.
While Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman repeatedly promotes his plan of toppling the Hamas regime with a lethal military strike, others, even within the ranks of the conservatives, are more careful.
“Hamas is actually an entity we can deal with. If Hamas goes, even more extreme groups related to Al-Qaeda and international jihadist will take over the area just by our doorstep,” says Guy Bechor, a Middle East researcher at the Herzliyah Interdisciplinary Center.
According to Yoav Limor, a military analyst with Israeli state-owned Channel 1, the army actually “held back its overwhelming power” due to a new set of circumstances.
“If we would have initiated a full-scale invasion of Gaza now,” said Limor, “it would have lit the fires of the Islamist groups maneuvering for power all over the Middle East.”
The Hamas leadership expected the changes in Egypt to limit Israel's freedom of action in Gaza. But then a surprise hit the battlefield. It came in the form of an article published in US publication the Washington Post.
On 1 April, Richard Goldstone, who headed the UN investigation of Israeli and Hamas military actions during the Gaza two years ago, wrote he no longer believes the Israeli army had intentionally sought to harm Palestinian civilians.
“If I had known then what I know today, the Goldstone report would have been a different document,” he wrote in the Post.
For Hamas, Goldstone’s retraction was seen as a green light for future Israeli attacks on Gaza, similar to the deadly Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, which left more than 1300 Palestinians dead.
“We are surprised by his retraction and the way in which he supports the Israeli narrative,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri in Gaza.
Tensions were also further escalated after the Israeli navy on 15 March intercepted a cargo ship with an estimated 50 tons of weapons. The Israelis said the Liberian-flagged Victory carried missiles to Hamas from Iran.
“The weapons could have posed a significant threat,” said Brig. Gen. Rani Ben-Yehuda after the interception.
President Shimon Peres praised the forces of democracy that swept Egypt and led to Mubarak’s ouster, expressing hope the devolution of power will eventually lead to greater peace in the Middle East. But Israel today fears the changes in Egypt could — for the first time since the peace agreement in 1979 — draw the two countries closer to a confrontation over Gaza.
In Egypt, leading politicians have hinted at a harsher line towards Israel, if not a cancellation of the peace agreement. Mohamad ElBaradei, a presidential candidate, even spoke of war between Egypt and Israel.
“If Israel attacks Gaza, we would declare war against the Zionist regime,” he told reporters in Cairo on 4 April.
Israel has already expressed its “worry” following Egypt’s construction freeze last week of an underground wall along the Rafah-border geared towards curbing weapons smuggling to Hamas. Already in 2009, according to Wikileaks reports published this week in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Israeli leaders accused Field Marshal Mohamad Hussein Tantawi, the current leader of the ruling military council in Egypt, of hindering the anti-smuggling efforts.
Israeli leaders today, more than ever, fear for their peace agreement with Egypt. It turns out, however, the concern over Cairo policy traces back to 2005, if not earlier.
“In Egypt’s war games Israel is always identified as the enemy,” said Amos Gilad, a top-official at the Israeli defense ministry, according to Wikileaks. “They are training all the time, preparing.”

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