Der Spiegel, no. 6, 2008
THE MARCH ON EREZ
Anxiety about rocket attacks in Israel
Hamas jubilation in Cairo; Knocking down Gaza border wall proven major success for Islamists
by Amira El Ahl and Christoph Schult
It’s been raining since early morning and the wet desert sand has transformed the main street of the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing into a muddy morass along which Chinese motorcycles, herds of goats, and pickup trucks carrying gas cans make their slippery way toward Gaza. Standing on the edge of the road, Hamad Kischta lights a cigarette and talks about prices.
“Everything’s gotten very cheap now,” says the Palestinian. Up until a week ago, the members of his clan were active smugglers, but now, with a huge hole punched in the wall between Gaza and Egypt, the value of the tunnels under the dunes has plummeted. “Kalashnikovs are going for only $300,” laments Kischta, “and the price of TNT has dropped from $15,000 to $5,000 per ton.”
One week after the opening of the border, Gaza’s Islamic Hamas government went on a weapons shopping spree and established a massive armory. As a result, instead of homemade Kassam rockets that are a threat to Israeli border towns, the country may now face rocket attacks with foreign made weapons that can reach large Israeli cities such as Ashkelon. “More Russian-grade rockets arrived in Gaza yesterday,” notes Kischta.
And yet this new threat along one of the world’s most conflict-ridden borders has garnered little attention. What has been etched into TV viewers’ minds instead are images of tens of thousands of Palestinians surging through the hole in the border wall to purchase staples such as milk and flour. For the Hamas government, this represents a PR coup that may change the course of policy and events for the region’s key stakeholders.
Israel, whose government locked down the Gaza border after having incurred an endless series of rocket attacks, is now being blamed for the humanitarian plight of the Palestinians, notwithstanding the uncertainty as to how severe the Gazan population’s suffering has been under the sanctions. The autonomous Palestinian government’s moderate Fatah party has felt compelled to lift its self-imposed severance of relations with Hamas, as has Egypt, which had been boycotting the Hamas government since it strong-armed its way into power last summer.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak reluctantly received the leader of Hamas last Wednesday in Cairo, with a view to brokering a compromise with the moderate Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Mubarak, who is normally anything but reticent in his dealings with radical Islamists, was forced to stand by helplessly in the face of the exodus of Palestinians from Gaza, since Mubarak’s compatriots would have taken a dim view of any use of violence against the individuals charging across the border.
And with good reason, since Egyptians now avail themselves of every opportunity to affirm their solidarity with their Palestinian brethren – one example being soccer star Mohammed Abu Tureika exhorting the crowd at a recent match against Sudan to show “solidarity with Gaza.” The Mubarak regime has even been forced to swallow manifestations of solidarity for Hamas from unexpected quarters such as the international book fair in Cairo.
The gaping hole in the Rafah wall has clearly demonstrated to the Israeli government that it can no longer afford to simply ignore Hamas. The policy of collective punishment for supporting fundamentalists has failed, notwithstanding last Wednesday’s Israeli Supreme Court ruling upholding restrictions on supplies of fuel and power to Gaza.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is leery of embarking on a large-scale military incursion into Gaza, particularly in view of a parliamentary committee’s final report released last week and attesting to serious errors in the handling of the 2006 Lebanon war. And in any case, Olmert is currently focused on trying to save his coalition and ensuring he isn’t forced out of office by the combined efforts of opponents in his own Kadima party and defense minister Ehud Barak from the Labor party. Hence, Olmert has little time to devote to Gaza.
According to Ahmed Yousef, chief advisor to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, knocking down the Rafah wall is probably the greatest success Hamas has scored since winning the parliamentary elections two years ago. Speaking from his Gaza City office, Yousef said he has received phone calls from around the world congratulating him on the action – including from self-appointed emissaries of European governments. “Hamas is once again a player to be reckoned with,” exulted Yousef.
However, the breach in the border also poses a risk for Hamas in the long run. There are increasing signs that al-Qaida cells are being established in Gaza, a form of competition that Hamas fears.
Hamas rejects any return to the 2005 treaty according to which the Israelis can seal off the crossing to the Egyptian city of Rafah at will. But international observers feel that such a move may be in the cards. All that has prevented this from happening thus far are the EU soldiers themselves. “The EU border police could withdraw,” says Yousef. Hamas has no intention of completely surrendering border control. One possible solution might be for President Abbas’s police to monitor the crossing, which must in any case remain open so that goods can be brought in. In Yousef’s view, Egypt should supply Gaza with diesel fuel and electricity, to nullify the effects of the Israeli sanctions.
According to Israeli diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity, the Israeli government would even be willing to give up control of the ten-kilometer stretch between Gaza and the Egyptian Sinai known as the Philadelphi Route, in the interest of completely ridding itself of any responsibility for Gaza. Long-term closure of all crossings into Israel would also reduce the risk of terrorist attacks and would bring to fruition the “disengagement” strategy proposed two and a half years ago by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza.
But Hamas wants to prevent this from happening at all costs. The Islamist leaders are hatching a plan that would continue to place the blame for Gaza’s plight squarely on Israel’s shoulders. Ahmed Yousef would like to pull off another Rafah-style exploit, but this time against the Palestinians’ archenemy, Israel. He is planning a mass march to the Erez border crossing in northern Gaza. “We’re going to send half a million people there, mainly women and children. Then we’ll see how the Israelis react,” he says. A devilish scheme, since the Israelis would not react as passively to the storming of their border as the Egyptians did. But Yousef is not impressed by such objections. “If the Israelis want our blood, I’m willing to sacrifice my children.”
Yousef has already asked international observers to participate in the “march on Erez.” Some have already agreed to come, and Yousef is happy about this. “This,” he says, “is the beginning of the third Intifada.”