Hamas Driving A Wedge Between Israel and Egypt

On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni recommended that Israel permit Egypt to double its force in the Sinai along the border with Israel. This is a response to Hamas’ breaching of the Gaza border which has allowed them to place operatives in the Sinai. The results of that repositioning were felt yesterday in Dimona as a Hamas suicide bomber killed a woman and wounded 11 other people.

The Egyptians, of course, have been requesting an increase in troop presence for a long time. Instead of granting what was a sensible request from Egypt (the Israel-Egypt peace treaty strictly limits the number of Egyptian troops that can be stationed near the border, so Egypt needs Israel’s consent to increase the presence), Israel refused until circumstances literally blew up in their face.

Israel is also considering building a new fence along the Egyptian border. This, of course, is Israel’s right, and it’s not an insensible decision. The Gaza/Egypt border is not likely to be hermetically sealed as it was before; Egypt is likely going to have to allow more movement in and out of Gaza than it had before. This means that Hamas, despite what is likely to be a concerted Egyptian effort to prevent it, has an avenue to access to Israeli civilians for murderous attacks like the one in Dimona. The barrier is thus a sensible precaution, albeit one that is merely a band-aid and not the solution to the problem at hand.

It should be noted that this proposed barrier is different from the wall/fence snaking through the West Bank. Had that barrier been built, like the one around Gaza, along the line of Israel’s internationally recognized border, the Green Line, it would not have been the target for condemnation that it was. Israel has every right to build walls along its border if it wishes; erecting a barrier whose course is through occupied (or, if you prefer, “disputed,” in this instance the point holds in either case) territory is not within its purview, though it is obviously well within its capabilities.

So, yes, Israel has the right to erect a barrier on its border. But is this really the future we want for Israel or that Israelis want for themselves? A walled-up Israel in an Arab region is uncomfortably reminiscent of the very existence Zionism sought to end for the Jewish people in Europe—the life of the ghetto. A better solution has to be found, because this kind of hunker-down defensive posture is not going to work in the long term. It is, by its nature, a defeatist attitude that is easily exploitable, as we will see. It is not a substitute for a just peace that allows everyone to live their lives with some degree of dignity, which remains the only solution for the people of Gaza and the West Bank and the people of Israel.

Hamas had a decision to make after they breached the Gaza border with Egypt. They could either try to capitalize on what was, essentially, a non-violent action that brought great attention and sympathy to the plight of the people of Gaza and showed that they could demonstrate leadership without killing anyone; or they could capitalize on the tactical gain they had made with access to the Sinai Peninsula and launch an attack on Israel.

Hamas opted for the latter, not surprisingly. The leopard does not change its spots in one day, no matter the obvious gains that could have been reaped. But there is more to that decision than Hamas merely following form. There is a strategy that is being pursued and it is connected to the inevitable Israeli response to the killing in Dimona and what is likely to be further attacks by Hamas from the Sinai.*

Should Ehud Olmert accept Livni’s recommendation regarding the increase in Egyptian troops, the next step will be to publicly hold Egypt responsible for maintaining Israel’s security in the Negev. The barrier on the border which will actively discourage Israelis from entering Egypt. This is precisely the response Hamas expects and desires.

That’s not to say Israel can do anything differently. The barrier will be demanded by the Israeli public and, while it is unlikely to completely solve the problem from Sinai, it will make it more difficult to cross the border. And of course, the point of allowing more Egyptian troops will be that they will be able to deter further actions, something they already did a few days before the Dimona attack, when Egyptian forces captured about a dozen Hamas militants who had various weapons and explosives.

But the net effect of all of this will be to heighten the political tension between Israel and Egypt. And that is precisely what Hamas wants. Any attack that gets through Egyptian security will immediately draw harsh criticism of Egypt by Israel. And if Egypt acts too forcefully against Hamas, this will strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

All of this brings back echoes of the old days, before Israel had made peace with any of its neighbors. Palestinians would often infiltrate Israel from Egypt or Jordan and Israel’s main tactic was to put pressure (usually through military action) on the neighboring state to try to force them to clamp down hard on the Palestinians. Israel has even indicated support for Hamas’ suggestion that Egypt take over the provision of fuel and other basic supplies to Gaza, furthering the scenario described above. Hamas’ goal is to reverse the meager gains toward regional peace and stability which includes Israel that have been made over the years. And they’re making significant progress toward that goal.

Thus, whether Hamas can successfully carry out any more attacks from Sinai, they will gain. The Two Ehuds (Olmert and Barak) have made it quite clear that their response will be more attacks on Gaza and a continuation of the blockade of the Strip, and indeed an IAF strike was the immediate response. That is to be expected from two such limited thinkers, but it is also the very definition of madness, repeating the same action over and over and expecting a different result the next time.

In both Israel and Gaza, the opportunity to advance a new approach over the violent ones that have failed to do anything except cause more suffering is being ignored. Yet, while Israel will gain nothing by pursuing this course further, as has been amply proven by experience both recent and distant, Hamas might well be able to drive a wedge between Israel and Egypt or, perhaps, even help to put the final nails in the coffin of the Mubarak regime and open the door for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Therefore, there is considerably more reason for Israel to break with the current tactics than there is for Hamas to do so. Sadly, however, such a break requires bold, creative and thoughtful leadership whose pragmatism can take the broader view of Israel’s best interests. Instead, we have one Ehud in the Prime Minister’s office who cannot see past the next opinion poll and another in the Defense Ministry who can only think in terms of how he can get the other Ehud’s office, a job he has had in the past and botched terribly. It’s not a rosy picture, and the Egyptian regime is caught in the middle. Maybe all those members of Congress who voted to withhold part of Egypt’s aid package at Israel’s behest might consider how best to be a friend to Israel. Because one thing is for sure—shattering the Israel-Egypt peace treaty is not the way to support anyone. Except, perhaps, Hamas.

*Note: It was reported after this article was posted that the bombers may have come from Hebron, or originally from Gaza, but got to Dimona from the West Bank. It remains unclear. Also, while other groups have claimed responsibility, the fact that this is the first suicide bombing in more than two years in Israel which Hamas has claimed as its own still strongly suggests that Hamas did in fact carry this one out. 

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