Egypt has ordered back into Gaza as many as 500 Hamas gunmen and an estimated 10,000 other Palestinians who in recent days have raced into Egypt through the blown-up border wall, but many analysts believe it will be impossible to put the genie back into the bottle.
“This is a whole new ballgame,” said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. “It has implications for Israeli-Egyptian relations and the way the whole Gaza issue is treated. It also makes the question of a Palestinian state look even more remote.”
By breaking through the Gaza-Egyptian border wall last week after Israel sealed its borders with Gaza Jan. 17, Hamas terrorists in Gaza have potentially found a new way to fight Israel, one that poses a most serious threat to the Jewish state, according to Avraham Sela, an expert on Hamas and a professor in the Hebrew University’s Department of International Relations.
Although breaching the border wall was said to have been planned months in advance, Sela said “Hamas managed to do it in a way that was more effective than all their Kassam rockets and mortar shells launched against Israel. This was civil disobedience that managed to respond in an efficient way to Israel’s attempt to isolate Gaza.”
The United Nations is said to have estimated that 700,000 Palestinians stormed through the open border with Egypt. Egyptian forces were outnumbered and — mindful of the television cameras recording the event — declined to use force to keep the Palestinians penned in.
“What would happen if 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza were to now march on the Karni passage [with Israel]?” Sela asked. “Are we going to shoot all of them? If Hamas abandons violence and uses these means, Israel will be in trouble in the international arena.”
Some analysts believe this is the perfect time for Israel to wash its hands of Gaza. One of them is former Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland who, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, said Israel should permanently cut off all economic ties with Gaza and insist that Egypt take over. He argued that the huge Gazan shopping spree on Egyptian soil following the wall’s collapse demonstrated that Egypt can provide a realistic economic alternative.
But both Steinberg and Sela believe the international community would never allow Israel to shift the burden of Gaza to Egypt.
“Egypt is a failing state and it has a very weak government,” Steinberg explained. “Israel is seen as the responsible adult and Egypt is seen as incompetent. And there is a huge question of what will happen in Egypt after [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak goes. Will there be a power struggle? The regime is extremely weak and America has continued to rely on it as its main American ally. But there is a real question as to how long it will survive.”
Egypt, with 73 million residents, is wracked by persistent inflation, declining government subsidies and budget deficits.
Sela noted that Palestinians in Gaza are very poor. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said Monday that 79 percent of Palestinian households in the Gaza Strip live in poverty and that 34 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face “food insecurity” — they live in households with an income and consumption of $1.60 per day.
“The Egyptians never wanted responsibility over this population,” Sela pointed out. “They have only wanted to have a foot inside to have influence over the Palestinian autonomy that was supposed to emerge … When Israel cut off fuel to Gaza [in response to persistent Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli cities], the world did not look to Egypt to do something; it blamed Israel.”