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Diplomatic Flap with Pakistan Erupts After Israel Refuses an Entry to Gaza

A diplomatic storm erupted this week over Israel’s refusal to allow a Pakistani ambassador to enter the Gaza Strip because he did not contact Israeli officials prior to the visit.

Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto reportedly canceled her plans to visit Gaza next week as a result of the incident.

Bhutto, whose predominantly Muslim country has no diplomatic relations with Israel, had planned to visit Gaza before attending a U.N.-sponsored world population conference in Cairo.

Bhutto apparently had canceled the visit once last week after Israeli officials said she would need their approval before making the visit.

But over the weekend she apparently changed her mind, and on Sunday, Mansur Alam, the Pakistani ambassador to Egypt, attempted to enter Gaza for the apparent purpose of arranging Bhutto’s visit.

The envoy spent some seven hours waiting at the Rafah crossing separating Gaza from Egypt before he was turned away on the orders of the secretary to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The order reportedly was given with the knowledge of both Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Israeli officials later claimed the envoy did not follow Israel’s entry procedures.

Israel is sensitive about the issue of Palestinian leaders inviting foreign dignitaries to either Gaza or the Jericho enclave in the West Bank. Both areas fell under Palestinian self-rule in May, but the autonomy agreement signed with Israel does not grant sovereignty or control over foreign relations to the Palestinians.

‘A SERIOUS BREACH OF THE PEACE PROCESS’

Bhutto would have been the first foreign head of state to visit Gaza.

The Palestinian leadership reacted angrily to the incident, with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat calling Israel’s actions a “serious (breach) of the peace process” and warning they would have wide-ranging repercussions.

But Rabin took Pakistan and Bhutto to task for failing to abide by proper protocols and for bypassing Israel.

“First Pakistan has to turn to us to ask for permission for the ambassador to go to Gaza,” he said. “The same applies to the prime minister.”

The Palestinian governing council, which convened a special meeting Sunday night to address the matter, maintained that under the terms of the self-rule accord, the council — not visitors to the Palestinian autonomous areas — is obliged to notify Israel through proper channels of any planned diplomatic visits.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath displayed his anger at the incident by showing up more than an hour late Monday to sign the accord for extending Palestinian control over several key areas in the West Bank.

Sha’ath described the Israeli action as a big mistake.

The incident constituted a “gross violation of the (self-rule) agreement,” said Sha’ath. “I think it will hurt very much the attempt by the government of Israel to normalize relations with Islamic countries.”

A Pakistani official said it was unlikely Bhutto would visit Gaza after what took place.

“The treatment meted out to our ambassador at the border was not very pleasant,” he said, “so certainly we don’t want the prime minister to face any unpleasant situation at the border.”

Some Israeli officials were said to believe the prime minister’s line was unnecessarily harsh and that a visit by Bhutto to Gaza would be good for the Palestinians and for the peace process.

Some also suggested that such a visit could benefit Israel and open the way toward diplomatic relations with Pakistan, which has so far rejected Israeli overtures aimed at normalizing relations.

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