On The View From Egypt, Part Four, Or, Gaza, We Have A Problem

What had been a truce between Israel and the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip seems to have abruptly come to a halt; with the Israelis blaming Hamas and Hamas blaming Israeli oppression of the displaced Palestinians for the simmering hostilities that are now boiling over into military-scale violence.

Before the recent holidays and an immoderate amount of snow buried me in things that could not be done on the computer we had been having a conversation about the strategic importance of our relationship with Egypt. Within that series of discussions we explored the influence of the political opposition, and we considered the fragility of President Mubarak’s hold on power.

We also noted the immediate proximity of Egypt to the Gaza Strip.

Today we’re going to tie all of that together—and the end result of all that tying is that we better keep a close eye on Egypt, because trouble in Gaza has spilled over into trouble in Cairo....and that’s one more Middle Eastern problem we don’t need.

If you’re looking for more details as to why Egyptian politics have been a one-party affair since the Republic’s founding, information about the opposition, or a consideration of the country’s strategic importance, have a look at Parts One, Two, or Three of this series.

So that we might put some of the background in place, here are some of the salient facts surrounding the events of the past few days:

A ceasefire that had existed between Hamas and the Israeli Government has expired. That ceasefire, however, had been a bit of an imperfect exercise.

Some attacks from Gaza into Israel have been self-attributed by Hamas (actions that they have described as responses to Israeli aggressions); and there are suggestions that forces loyal to the rival Fatah movement have also been involved in attacks. The Israeli Foreign Ministry reported 2502 rockets or mortars were fired from Gaza in the first 11 months of 2008, resulting in 17 Israeli deaths. (The ceasefire began in June of 2008.)

Over the four days since the ceasefire’s expiration at least 1100 Palestinians have been killed or wounded by Israeli airstrikes, with some airstrikes targeting tunnels that connect the Gaza Strip to Egypt.

The tunnels are important because they are used to import supplies to the region when normal commercial crossings are restricted or closed by the Israeli Defense Forces. (Truck crossings into Gaza have been reduced from 475 daily before Hamas took control of the region to 123 daily in October 2008 to none for the past eight days.)

The IDF reports that the tunnels are used to import weapons as well.

It is also reported that IDF troops are massing near the Gaza border. It is possible that an entry into Gaza by the IDF is imminent, but as of this writing that has not yet occurred...or it may have already occurred, as reported by the sometimes reliable Debka.com.

And it’s the tunnels that connect this story to Egypt.

As you may recall from our earlier conversations, there are many Egyptians who support the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist views, and there are also many Egyptians, unassociated with Islamism, who feel a sense of solidarity with Gazans and their struggles with Israel. Add to that the fact that President Mubarak’s secular but increasingly unpopular Government has been cooperative with Israel as they have worked to isolate Gaza and you have the makings of some serious trouble in the Egyptian street.

And as of today, the trouble seems to have started.

In a country with a Government that attempts to deter undesired street demonstrations with an extremely hostile internal security response, El Badeel of Cairo reports as many as 200.000 of the undeterred may have taken to the streets in demonstrations against the Government in cities such as Cairo, Alexandria, Tanta, and even down the Nile in the farm country of Minya and Asyut.

The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Abul-Gheit, and the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, are trading words—and Egyptian police and military border guard units are firing on Palestinians who attempt to enter Egypt through holes blown in the wall (by the bombing raids...) that would normally prevent such entries.

Now here is where it gets tricky.

Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, is essentially descended from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—and the last thing Mr. Mubarak wants is hundreds of thousands of Hamas supporters taking up permanent residence in his country, especially if they end up forming fairly insular communities out in the Sinai Desert where the Egyptian internal security apparatus is at it’s weakest.

On the other hand, being perceived as supporting Israel is fraught with 200,000 or so of its own perils—and if the internal security apparatus can’t control the demonstrations, or uses unusually harsh methods to regain control, the internal security threat to Mr. Mubarak’s control from his own citizens will also rise dramatically.

There are those in Israel who want Egypt to take control of Gaza...and it is possible that Israel will use the blockade to create an atmosphere that will “require” Egypt to take “humanitarian” steps—something that might be popular in the Egyptian street...but something that Mr. Mubarak, as we have noted, has no desire to accept.

There are also those who would like to see the Fatah Party take over again in Gaza, removing Hamas from power—but you may recall that Hamas was able to come to power in Gaza because many ordinary Gazans perceived Fatah and Yasser Arafat to be extraordinarily corrupt and ineffectual during their time in power.

The bad news for the US?

We are perceived throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds as the blindly supportive enablers of what Israel is doing in Gaza...and we are perceived in Egypt as the country that enables Mr. Mubarak’s often highly oppressive rule.

As things go badly for the Palestinians, ironically, they get bad for us—and probably for the Israelis as well.

Why? Well, as I often say to my friends, we are making enemies faster than we can kill them. This blind support of Israel against the Gazans isn’t helping matters...but Johann Hari tells the story much better than I:

The world isn't just watching the Israeli government commit a crime in Gaza; we are watching it self-harm. This morning, and tomorrow morning, and every morning until this punishment beating ends, the young people of the Gaza Strip are going to be more filled with hate, and more determined to fight back, with stones or suicide vests or rockets. Israeli leaders have convinced themselves that the harder you beat the Palestinians, the softer they will become. But when this is over, the rage against Israelis will have hardened, and the same old compromises will still be waiting by the roadside of history, untended and unmade.

To understand how frightening it is to be a Gazan this morning, you need to have stood in that small slab of concrete by the Mediterranean and smelled the claustrophobia. The Gaza Strip is smaller than the Isle of Wight but it is crammed with 1.5 million people who can never leave. They live out their lives on top of each other, jobless and hungry, in vast, sagging tower blocks. From the top floor, you can often see the borders of their world: the Mediterranean, and Israeli barbed wire. When bombs begin to fall – as they are doing now with more deadly force than at any time since 1967 – there is nowhere to hide.

--From an editorial in The Independent, December 29, 2008

There is one bit of good news: if Hillary Clinton can find a way to be seen as an “honest broker”, instead of just a supporter of Israel, the incoming Obama Administration could change the atmosphere enough to allow Gazans and Israelis to again return to negotiations. Can the Obama Administration change the atmosphere enough to induce Israel to adopt a less hard-line anti-Palestinian stance? That may be the biggest question the new Secretary of State finds on her plate next month.

Another possible bit of good news: a rapid settlement and return to a semi-ceasefire status could reduce the long-term political damage. In the unfortunate event of a large-scale ground action by the IDF, it is likely the long-term damage increases. (Some suggest the Israelis chose this moment because they feel the Obama Administration will be less supportive of a hard-line policy than the Bush Administration. If this is true, the window for aggressive action may be closing sooner rather than later.)

So here we are: The Israeli actions against Gaza, intended to end the desire of Gazans to attack Israel, are likely to have exactly the opposite effect...which is spilling over the border to create all kinds of problems for the Mubarak Government in Egypt...all of which means all kinds of new bad news for us.

Hillary Clinton might have problems negotiating with all the players...but if she can overcome that obstacle, there could be a better outcome down the road than we have today.

If Israel cannot be convinced to find a way to develop a different relationship with their Palestinian neighbors—and vice versa—eight years from now President Obama will find himself just as vexed as Mr. Bush is today with his giant Middle Eastern failure...and if events cause Egypt, Pakistan, and maybe even Morocco to slide over to the Iran end of the “scale of hostile nations”, he may find himself quite a bit more vexed than he ever expected.


to really add to the conversation...

...have a look at this most compelling video.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Thanks for this informative post.

The political and social history of this region is confusing and perplexing. It's most certainly a powder keg and the fuse is lit.

I'm torn between thinking the Israelis have a right and responsibility to protect themselves and then wondering if their response is appropriate...and then realizing I haven't the information or knowledge to make that judgement...as if it mattered what I think.

What do you think should be done?

Stan Bozarth

i'm in the middle of trying to figure that out...

...and we are floating ideas back and forth between here and egypt.

i'm hoping to bring that conversation to the table over the next few days.

i will tell you this--the paradox for israel is that this type of response seems to be making them less safe.

for the moment they may be able to stop rockets coming from hamas...but at the same time they are cementing the relationship with palestinians who might not have otherwise supported hamas. (there is an arabic saying..."the enemy of my enemy is my friend"...and hamas is the enemy of israel--and therefore the new friend of many gazans.)

the other problem for israel is one you might recognize from your own experience as a child.

did you ever have your parents spank you enough that you became determined to never show pain or to back down?

that's what is happening to palestinians--and this will drive more and more of them to the hamas side...and it will make any sort of peaceful resolution much, much tougher.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

While this is true,

the paradox for israel is that this type of response seems to be making them less safe.

I'm afraid there really are no responses that will make them safe. Dismantle the Gaza settlements, the rockets still fly. Agree to an informal cease-fire, the rockets still fly. Try to target (only) the rocket teams, the rockets still fly.

The people in Sderot have fifteen seconds to find shelter when the alarms go off. Those little "harmless" Qassams have 2-3 kilograms of TNT as a payload, and the shock wave from that can produce traumatic brain injury or death a half-block away in an urban environment.

I don't know what the solution is, but I do know this: we in the West have to stop assuming that Israel can or will put up with low-level terrorism directed against civilians in Ashkelon, Sderot and smaller towns and villages in the Western Negev.

I abhor the humanitarian problems that the blockade has produced, but without it, I am certain that Hamas and Islamic Jihad would focus on bringing in more Grads, Katyushas, and other farther-reaching and more powerful manufactured (as opposed to hand-made) rockets and other weapons.

couple comments...

...first, one of the most well-connected blogs around is from durham, and here's the link.

now about the future: this is very tough for me to say, but the ultimate problem here might be that israel wants to be a jewish state in the middle of a majority population that is not jewish...and that may mean that israel becomes the new south africa in the process.

the best solution would have involved creating economic opportunity and providing social services for gazans in a way that makes hamas irrelevant...but it's likely that that ship has now sailed.

and don't forget, this is not a hamas problem.

this was an ongoing problem for decades before hamas came to power. some thought it would be resolved through negotiations between israel and arafat (who was fatah, not hamas); and the root of the problem is, in fact, found in "Ashkelon, Sderot and [the] smaller towns and villages in the Western Negev." (that process fell apart, in large measure, because gazans veiwed arafat and fatah as amazingly corrupt and unintersted in the interests of gazans; instead being mainly interested in retaining power at the expense of gazans.)

60 years ago the same gazans who are crammed into gaza today lived in those towns...until israel threw them out and installed them in what they see as a ghetto from which they can never emerge.

how would you react if that had happened to you?

considering that the usa is proud of our revolutionary mottoes ("don't tread on me", "live free or die"), it should not be that big of a leap to empathizing with gazans--maybe not hamas, but certainly gazans.

and i'll tell you something: if they had done it to me, i'd be firing rockets too.

go back to my first comment here and see the video that's linked--and while you're watching, keep in mind that if we cannot make a better life for the kids in this video, there will be no end to war.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

I'd be more than firing rockets

I know me. If I found myself in the shoes of the people in Gaza, I have no doubt I'd be volunteering to be a suicide bomber.

when you see life...

...from their point of view the situation looks a whole lot different...and israel should be ashamed of themselves for using this approach--and beyond that, just on a practical level, they should have known better.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

But what would be your target, James?

An IDF roadblock, or a busload of women and children?

That's an easy answer for you or me, but the reality is (mostly) the opposite. Soft targets, big terror. It's not something that should be casually condoned.


(In addition, suicide bombers are, in my opinion, cowards. James isn't a coward.)

In every war each side thinks it is right and each side has it's supporters and detractors. War is a stupid wasteful way to resolve conflict. I'm not going to pick sides here...but I lean towards Israel. Hamas wants to kill all Israelis and destroy the state of Israel. That's pretty definitive. Faced with that reality, Israel has the right to defend itself.

I'm not sure either that the plight of the people in Gaza can always be laid directly at the feet of Israel...or it's supposed conniving with it's neighbors. We've been screwed by eight years of atrocious leadership (Phftttt...)and a complicit Congress. The Palestinians can look to their past leaders to take some blame...just as we must for GW (Phfttt...) Bush and his appointees and every elected official who has failed to do his or her job with integrity and in the interest of our nation rather than self.

Stan Bozarth

GW Bush is the culprit?

This conflict has gone on how long?

I know that Bush is the pissing post for all that is bad in the world and at home and I mostly agree with much of it. But this conflict? I have to take issue with people laying the blame for this not being resolved because of Bush & Co. or the republican congress. This is FAR more complicated than that.

The best thinking is independent thinking.

My point, Smitty, was that the Palestinians have been screwed by

poor leadership for a long time...just as we have. I wasn't laying this at Bush's feet. Rather at Arafat's and others in the Arab world.

Bush is already up to his lower lip in the shit he's done. If I could push his head under, I'd happily do it. He's complicit...but as you said this has been going on a looooong time.

Stan Bozarth

Palestinian/Israeli situation

Yep...no doubt that the palestinian/Israeli situation has been a subject of controversy for longer than most of us have been alive. Hey, we've even seen a Nobel Peace Prize given for efforts to resolve it...which all ended up being all for naught. This conflict/controversy is the basis for all that's wrong in the Middle East when discussing Israel. Muslim vs. Jew.....it's just something moderation and goodwill and "peace agreements" aren't gonna solve, in my view. These two aren't going to "live together, side-by-side, in harmony". Yep, that's what I'd like to see and what most of our world would like to see....but, it's just not gonna happen any more than mainland China is gonna recognize any break-away province as anything but their own....ala Taiwan.

Israel is a friend of America because it exists in a very strategic location in the Middle East and because it represents many of our country's moral and religious beliefs. We'll defend them and give them support and benefits only America can give because of that.

I know that the far left in our country sides with the palestinians because they're the "underdogs" in this situation. It's their mantra...it's what they do. But, at the end of the day, that's not good for America. The leaders of Hamas and other radical, terrorist-supporting entities don't have the interests of America as something they care about. So, we're right not supporting them.

The best thinking is independent thinking.


...jews and muslim (and other arabs as well) did live side by side before 1948 in these very regions.

from the gazans point of view, the new dimension added to the problem is that the state of israel wants a jewish nation, to the exclusion of the gazans...and of course, the added element that since hamas was elected in gaza the israeli government appears to be punishing gazans for their electoral choice.

and let's not forget, hamas was elected because fatah was the other choice--and it was an even worse choice.

another point: hamas was not elected because they were going to attack israel. gazsans chose them because of their history of providing social services, jobs, and schools in the strip...a history that had lasted nearly two decades before the 2005 elections.

ironically, hamas was losing support among gazans...because of their failure to improve conditions in the gaza strip...and this attack appears to be creating new support for hamas among the gazan population.

more irony: had the bush administration begun talking to hamas in 2005, it might have prevented a lot of today's troubles by legitimizing hamas. instead, the desire to delegitimize hamas may have actually made them more radical than might have occurred otherwise.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

I do empathize with them, Fake

But there's more at stake here than just the Gazans or the Israelis that live around them. The removal of Israeli settlements from Gaza should have been a blueprint for the removal of settlements in the much larger West Bank. Instead, Hamas' mismanagement of their position of responsibility by allowing Islamic Jihad to continue firing rockets into Israeli towns has made the future of West Bank Palestinians even more bleak, and has jeopardized the two-state solution.

And yes, Israel has been a bad actor in this formula. They've engaged in extra-judicial killings of Hamas and Fatah members during cease-fires, as punishment for previous activities. Overall, I would say that Israel is much more responsible for the current state of affairs than the Palestinians. But taking the position that Gazans are justified in "actively resisting" the occupation is not going to further the cause of peace in the region.

If we want those children to live a life devoid of war, then we have to stop telling them that making war is honorable and just.

with all respect...

...the same argument could have been made about the terrorist acts that occurd in lexington and concord, mass. in 1775.

i know it's a well-worn cliche, but one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter--and the winner usually decides which is which.

what israel refers to as terrorism hamas might refer to as asymmetric warfare.

the non-terrorist alternative? hamas builds up the same sort of conventional military structure as israel, and they fight it out with tanks out in the desert while the two air forces bomb each others' cities.

gazans would remind you that their kids experience malnutrition, and that gazans are far more likely to killed by israeli actions than israelis are by the actions of hamas.

i made the comment above that simply negotiating with hamas could have prevented a lot of this problem--and it's true. creating an economy in gaza would have also gone a long way toward making hamas irrelevant.

and as far as extremists go...at what point will israelis rebuke their own "lunatic fringe", the extreme hard-right clerics and politicians who stoke the flames of war--and insist that it is god that is making them build new settlements in ways that are designed to intentionally cause problems with the gazan neighbors?

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

You're not really comparing Hamas

"the same argument could have been made about the terrorist acts that occurd in lexington and concord, mass. in 1775."

to the Minutemen, are you? Aside from the fact that the Minutemen attacked (almost exclusively) uniformed troops on the march, as opposed to Hamas and IJ preferring to attack civilians, the Continental Army handled captured British (and even Hessian) wives and children, of which there were quite a few, with chivalry and dignity. The cost of their care actually became burdensome.

A better comparison would be the various Native American tribes who attacked settlers. They killed whole families in order to inspire fear, which they thought would keep settlers away. We ended up using that as an excuse to kill entire villages and round up others for "security" reasons.

The Palestinians are the Israelis' dangerous Indian population. I only hope their story ends better than ours.

choose whichever analogy you prefer...

...but the larger point is that the side that cannot respond army to army will use other tactics--and to some that will seem to be terrorism, but to the side that has the disadvantages it will be seen as an effort to level the playing field.

since the definitions often depend on where you are sitting at the time, you might consider that many in gaza see the seizure of new land, the expansion of settlements, the expulsion of the non-jewish residents, and the sealing of borders as terrorism as well--and that is the other half of the "eye for an eye" cycle that, up to this point, hasn't been broken.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Hamas tactics

I had read (on CNN, I think) about Hamas "capturing" Gazans who had collaborated with Israel, but apparently they've also executed some of them:

Meanwhile, sources close to Hamas revealed over the weekend that the movement had "executed" more than 35 Palestinians who were suspected of collaborating with Israel and were being held in various Hamas security installations.

The sources quoted Hamas officials as saying that the decision to kill the suspected collaborators was taken out of fear that Israel might try to rescue them during a ground offensive. The officials claimed that at least half of the victims were killed by relatives of Palestinian militiamen who were killed as a result of information passed on to Israel by the "collaborators."

And just to be on the safe side, they're shooting Fatah members in the leg (when not outright killing them) so they won't try to take advantage of the situation by doing to Hamas what Hamas did to them a few years ago:

Fatah officials in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post that Hamas militiamen had been assaulting many Fatah activists since the beginning of the operation last Saturday. They said at least 75 activists were shot in the legs while others had their hands broken.

The Hamas official said that his security forces had launched a massive "preemptive" campaign aimed at thwarting Fatah's attempts to "spread anarchy and chaos." He confirmed that many Fatah operatives had been shot in the legs over the past few days by Hamas "to make sure that they don't help Israel."

Fahmi Za'arir, a Fatah spokesman in the West Bank, accused Hamas of "executing" a number of Fatah detainees. He said the Fatah leadership knew of at least two Fatah men who were shot dead by Hamas after being released from prison. He named them as Nasser Muhana and Saher al-Silawi.

One side of the equation, for sure

There's surely an equal number of horrendous acts by BOTH sides in this struggle. There can be presentations from CNN or BBC or anyone else on what either side is doing that is against what most of us consider fair and decent.

This board/blog could be filled with whatever can be found on Google or any other search engine that shows how horrible both sides treat the other side.

Presenting it is just something to rally the troops that are already rallied.

The best thinking is independent thinking.

I'm not really trying to rally the troops

with that post, I'm trying to get across the message that the Palestinians aren't going to obtain any kind of permanent improvement of their situation with Hamas in charge. It's just not going to happen. I honestly don't know if Fatah is any better now than they were, but at least they can be reasoned with.

And something Fake forgot to mention when he wrote this:

Egyptian police and military border guard units are firing on Palestinians who attempt to enter Egypt through holes blown in the wall

is that Hamas fired on those Palestinian civilians also. Not because they were assisting the Egyptian forces, but because they considered the civilians running away from bombs as "cowardice", and they also didn't want to lose any human shields.

there are two reasons...

...i had not mentioned the fact you bring us today.

on the one hand, i'm not aware of it, and have not as of yet been able to confirm it. i'm not saying it's untrue, just that i did not personally know it to be true.

the other? the bigger issue in this story was that this action by egyptian border guards is going to exacerbate internal egyptian political problems, and it is going to make it tougher for mr. mubarak to deal with the muslim brotherhood and the increasing number of non-islamist egyptians that will now sympathize with the brotherhood because of a sense of solidarity with gazans.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Here you go:

I originally got it from this CNN article, which has since (apparently) been chopped down to size.

Here's a LexisNexis capture of the original article:

Palestinians began trying to cross over into Egypt through a hole in the wall after the bombing, witnesses said, but Egyptian police and Hamas gunmen began firing in an attempt to stop them.

thanks for the follow up...

...and ironically, as i'm reading this c-span is showing the gathering of the 111th congress--and specifically a picture of brad sherman and jim clyburn in conversation.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965