Israel May Need Egypt’s Help to Withdraw Safely from Gaza

After Israel’s prime minister announced he 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, called the “Philadelphia Axis” in military slang. 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 “Philadelphia” as part of the overall departure from Gaza, but it is now clear that no such move can take place without full Egyptian cooperation.

When the United States was pressing Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian-populated Gaza Strip in cooperation with the Palestinians and the Egyptians, Israel said the Palestinians were uninterested in cooperating.

However, Israel had no problem with the idea of coordinating the withdrawal with the Egyptians.

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 an interview with an Egyptian media agency last week, 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 that 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.”

The Egyptians truly are concerned.

They 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 it could provide a boost to the radical Islamic fundamentalist movement inside Egypt itself. After years of unrest among Egypt’s Islamic fundamentalists, Mubarak’s government only recently has succeeded in curbing fundamentalist elements in the country.

Aside from Egyptian reticence, there remain other major problems to a possible Egyptian takeover of security responsibility along the Gaza border.

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 next month.

After meeting with Mubarak last week 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.

However, they have not done so thus far.

Additionally, 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 as well.

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

Although P.A. President Yasser Arafat initially rejected Sharon’s Gaza pullout plan, the Palestinians now are saying they should be partners to the withdrawal.

Jibril Rajoub, Arafat’s national security adviser, 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 last week. “Hamas will not be able to control Gaza,” he said, noting, “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.

Over the weekend, Fatah ended a contentious four-day debate on reform by calling for a cease-fire with Israel — this just days after Fatah’s armed faction, the Al-Aksa Brigade terrorist group, perpetrated a bus bombing in Jerusalem that claimed eight victims.

Some P.A. officials called for dismantling the Al-Aksa Brigade, but Arafat’s security adviser told reporters that the issue never reached the agenda in the Ramallah meetings of the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

The meetings were called for by Fatah’s young guard in part in protest over the party’s failure to hold new elections for the Fatah Central Committee. The current 16-member committee, which is widely believed to wield the real power in the Palestinian Authority, was elected in 1989.

This is the first time in three years that the council — which is supposed to meet every three months — has met.

Earlier during the meetings, Arafat reportedly hurled a microphone at Fatah official Nasser Yousef for suggesting the P.A. security forces are inefficient. Yousef, whom Arafat called a traitor, threw a pen at Arafat.

The growing internal criticism of Arafat and his entourage is a sign that the P.A. leader is losing his grip on the heart of the West Bank, not to mention the Gaza Strip. Critics also are complaining about the lack of a clear political vision and strategy for dealing with Israel.

Over the weekend, Nablus Mayor Ghassan Shaqa announced he was resigning to protest the P.A.’s failure to bring order to his increasingly lawless West Bank city.

“Our society is destroyed,” Shaqa said, ” and the Israeli occupation is not solely responsible for this.”

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