Israeli strategists weigh Gaza options

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The collapse of the border wall between the Gaza Strip and Egypt has done more than break Israel’s siege of the Hamas-run strip. It also opened new, far-reaching strategic options for Israel while exposing it to grave new dangers.

Some strategists say Israel should use the opportunity to force Gaza to look outward to Egypt, its natural Arab hinterland, and thereby reduce and eventually end Israeli responsibility for Gaza’s fate.

Others say such a handover of responsibility would expose Israel to worse terrorism than ever, and that Israel instead should clamp down on all crossing points: between Israel and Gaza, Gaza and Egypt, and Israel and Egypt.

Guy Bechor of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center argues that the border breach has created conditions for a total Israeli disengagement that would leave Egypt responsible for Gaza, as it was before the 1967 Six-Day War.

“For the first time since 1967, Egypt has been sucked into Gaza, and worse, Gaza has been sucked into Egypt,” he says.

Bechor maintains that Israel’s policy of policing Gaza along the Philadelphi route, which separates Gaza and Egypt, was short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating. More than protect Israel, it protected Egypt from Gaza’s Palestinian radicals.

The fall of the wall, he says, has reopened the possibility of close ties between Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which could threaten the Egyptian regime.

Therefore, Bechor says, if left alone to deal with Gaza, Egypt will keep a much tighter rein on Hamas than Israel ever could. Israel just has to sit back and do nothing and the situation will take care of itself, he contends.

Former Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland also believes the new situation provides an excellent opportunity for Israel to rid itself of responsibility for Gaza. To cement the break, he proposes detaching Gaza from the customs union with Israel and the West Bank. As part of the Oslo agreements, Gaza, the West Bank and Israel form a single customs entity.

Eiland’s proposal would cut off Gaza economically from Israel and the West Bank and force it to turn to Egypt for sustenance. With the border breach, Eiland says, Israel also could cut off all fuel and other supplies to Gaza and insist they instead come from Egypt.

Furthermore, pushing Gaza into Egypt’s hands would sever the connection between Gaza and the West Bank and weaken the Palestinian national movement — a development Eiland believes would serve Israeli interests: Instead of looking to Israel or the West Bank, Gaza would go to its Arab neighbor.

For other analysts, the idea of an open border between Egypt and Gaza is a strategic nightmare.

Maj.-Gen. Yom Tov Samya, a former head of Israel’s Southern Command, says Israel must act quickly to reinforce its control along the border with Egypt

This means increasing patrols along the entire Israeli-Egyptian border and reasserting Israeli control over the Philadelphi route dividing Gaza from Egypt, which Israeli forces handed over to the Egyptians in 2005.

If these steps are not taken, Samya says, terrorists will be able to move out of Gaza into the Sinai and threaten Israelis across the weakly defended Israeli-Egyptian border — to say nothing of the free flow of heavy weapons from Egypt into Gaza. Rather than opening Gaza to Egypt, as Bechor and Eiland suggest, Samya urges sealing it off tighter from Egypt.

“The holes in the Philadelphi route could lead to regional war,” he warns.

Israel’s government has yet to adopt any of the new policy suggestions. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to be toying with the idea of detachment from Gaza, while Defense Minister Ehud Barak would like to see stronger action by Egypt to seal its border with Gaza.

In the meantime, following a court order, Israel renewed the supply of fuel and cooking gas to the strip.