CAIRO (Reuters) - Israeli raids on the Gaza Strip, which killed at least 208 people on Saturday, have raised the stakes for Egypt in maintaining a blockade on the territory in spite of strong opposition from the Egyptian public.
The strip, where some 1.5 million Palestinians live under Israeli and Egyptian blockade, is the biggest foreign policy headache the Egyptian government has faced at least since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.
Most Egyptian commentators other than those working for the state media find it embarrassing that Egypt is cooperating with the Israelis in a policy widely seen in Egypt as designed to undermine the Islamist movement Hamas by punishing ordinary Palestinians.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said 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.”
The state-owned media rarely mention Egypt’s role in restricting the flow of people and goods in and out of Gaza. Instead they highlight the aid Egypt sends to Gaza and its occasional decisions to open the border for humanitarian cases.
But Egyptians interested in regional affairs have easy access through the internet, satellite television and the independent local press to information about the suffering in Gaza and their government’s role there.
So why does Egypt continue to restrict access to Gaza?
THE BURDEN OF GAZA — Cairo believes that if it left the Egypt-Gaza border wide open Israel would wash its hands of responsibility for ensuring the Gazans receive enough to keep them alive — food, water, medical supplies, electricity and other essentials. Egyptian diplomats say that Israel would seal the border with Gaza on its side, diverting all trade and traffic through Egypt.
The burden would be a drain on Egyptian resources and the authorities might find it hard to prevent an influx of Gaza Palestinians seeking work and housing.
In one worst-case scenario Israel might hold Egypt responsible for any attacks on Israel launched from Gaza, forcing Egypt to act as Gaza policeman — a role fraught with danger. Egypt’s presence in Gaza between 1948 and 1967, and its inability to impose full control on Palestinian groups there, helped drag Egypt into war with Israel in 1956 and 1967.
Despite the Egyptian border restrictions, Palestinians have been using a network of tunnels for smuggling between Egypt and Gaza.
THE ISLAMIST FACTOR — The split between Hamas and the rival Fatah movement reflects the ideological divide between the opposition Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt and the Cairo government. Historically Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood and acknowledges the Egypt-based group as its mentor. On the other side the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority has institutions closely modeled on those of the Egyptian state. As one condition for reopening the border, the Egyptian government demands that Hamas recognize the legitimacy and authority of the Palestinian Authority. Egypt also fears that Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood will cooperate behind its back, adding to the internal security threats which are Cairo’s main concern. Although Cairo says it is neutral between Hamas and Fatah, officials have made remarks suggesting they are much closer to the Fatah way of thinking.
THE U.S. ALLIANCE — The United States, without significant dissent from the European Union, has pressed Egypt to maintain the blockade, in the belief that it will weaken Hamas and force it into submission. Egypt, despite reservations about many aspects of U.S. foreign policy, still receives about $1.4 billion a year in U.S. aid and has a strategic alliance with Washington. The Egyptian government has the tacit support of conservative Arab rulers and pays little heed to more confrontational states in the region, such as Syria and Iran.
So what does Cairo want to see happen in Gaza?
Ideally it would like to see reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, with Hamas acting as the junior partner. It has proposed the Palestinians form a non-partisan government of national unity accountable directly to President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Palestinian government would then impose its will throughout its territory, closing down unofficial armed groups and enforcing a truce between Israelis and Palestinians.
The Egyptian government says Israel could help bring about calm by easing the restrictions on Gaza from its side and refraining from disproportionate attacks on Gaza.
The Palestinian Authority would then be in a stronger position to resume negotiations with the Israeli government on a final peace agreement which creates a Palestinian state to live side by side with Israel.
What is Egypt doing to bring that about?
The Egyptian government was influential in bringing about the six-month truce which finally expired on December 19. It also came close to bringing Palestinian groups to a national reconciliation conference. The truce has now broken down and the conference seems unlikely to take place any time soon. Egyptian officials say they have no choice but to pursue those tracks.