Withdrawal from Gaza will impact Egypt, too

jerusalem | After its prime minister announced Israel was planning to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, several weeks passed before Israeli officials realized they were neglecting an important detail: Egypt, Gaza’s other neighbor.

Now Israeli officials apparently are beginning to realize that before making significant changes at home, it pays to consult with one’s neighbors.

The southwestern corner of the Gaza Strip borders with Egypt’s Sinai Desert. Israeli forces currently are deployed along that 12-mile corridor. Israel retained control of the corridor after the Palestinian Authority took over the Gaza Strip in 1994.

A complete withdrawal from Gaza would mean giving up that control, which could be trouble for Israel.

Time and again, Palestinians have dug tunnels under this Israeli-controlled border area, which in some places is several hundred yards wide, to smuggle arms into Gaza from Egypt. Those arms include rockets with the capability of reaching Israeli towns and cities.

Every so often, the Israeli army pushes into the southern Gaza town of Rafah to destroy the arms-smuggling tunnels, which appear to run largely unimpeded on the Egyptian side.

If this is the case when the Israel Defense Forces retains ultimate control over the area, one can only imagine the scope of arms-smuggling operations into Gaza once the soldiers leave that line.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has indicated that he intends to have Israeli soldiers leave as part of the overall departure from Gaza, but it is now clear that no such move can take place without full Egyptian cooperation.

Negotiations between Israel and Egypt already have begun. Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad security agency, visited Egypt recently for discussions on the matter.

While Egypt endorses an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, it is concerned over possible repercussions. In a recent interview with an Egyptian media agency, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recalled that his predecessor, the late Anwar Sadat, had rejected the idea of taking over Gaza back in 1978, during Egypt’s negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Mubarak said proposals that Israel transfer control of the strip to Egypt — as Israeli Cabinet minister Effi Eitam, leader of the National Religious Party, has proposed — simply are “not serious.”

This week, Sharon’s two envoys in Washington told U.S. officials that Israel wants U.S. help persuading Egypt to secure the Gaza Strip once Israel withdraws. Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, and his national security adviser, Giora Eiland, met Monday, March 1 with Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The United States says it is ready to help, but an administration official expressed doubts that the Egyptians would want to assume responsibility for pursuing Palestinian terrorists.

Nadil Fahmy, Egypt’s ambassador to Washington, said his country was interested in the proposal but needed to know more. Egypt would participate if the withdrawal were part of negotiations with the Palestinians, Fahmy said.

“It has to be in the context of resolving the conflict on the basis of a two-state solution and ending the occupation,” he said.

The Egyptians are well aware of the possible complications of any close involvement with the 1.3 million Palestinians on their northern border.

If Hamas takes over Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal, Egypt is worried that this could provide a boost to the radical Islamic fundamentalist movement inside Egypt. After years of unrest among Egypt’s Islamic fundamentalists, Mubarak’s government only recently has succeeded in curbing fundamentalist elements in the country.

And there are other major potential problems.

According to the terms of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, both countries can deploy only limited forces along the border. An amendment of that treaty would be required for Egypt to take over effective control of the border. That will be one of the issues on the agenda of Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz’s trip to Egypt this month.

After meeting with Mubarak in Cairo as the head of a Labor Party delegation, party leader Shimon Peres said Egypt eventually would take over responsibility for the Gaza Strip border.

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former Israeli defense minister, said after the meeting that the Egyptians assured the Israeli delegation that they would ban arms-smuggling into Gaza. In exchange for Egypt’s cooperation, Israel would have to pledge that the Gaza withdrawal would be the first step of a larger pullout from West Bank areas coordinated not only with Egypt, but with the Palestinian Authority.

Coordination these days between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is problematic, to say the least.

Jibril Rajoub, national security adviser to Yasser Arafat, recently dismissed concerns that Hamas would take over Gaza once Israeli forces left.

“We will fight them and prevent them,” Rajoub told a group of Israeli military reporters that he summoned to his Ramallah office the last week in February.

“Hamas will not be able to control Gaza. Palestinians want a secular and democratic system of governance, not a fundamentalist one.”

But can the Palestinian Authority really take over control of Gaza? Judging by the internal crisis in the Fatah, Arafat’s ruling party, the extent to which the Palestinian Authority controls anything in the Palestinian-populated areas is highly dubious.

The growing internal criticism of Arafat and his entourage is a sign that the leader is losing his grip on the heart of the West Bank, not to mention the Gaza Strip.