Ramallah, West Bank — The crisis of Rafah’s open border morphed into a four-way diplomatic power struggle this week that reinforced Hamas’ ascendance in the rivalry against President Mahmoud Abbas’ weaker Palestinian Authority.
A Palestinian Authority official said Abbas wants the Egyptians to help him deploy some 200 to 300 of his presidential guard forces along the border in order to uphold the Palestinian commitments under a U.S.-brokered agreement with Israel that’s supposed to keep the passages open.
“They will have nothing to do with the Hamas side,” said National Economy Ministry official Nofaz Abdel Hafiz.
Even though the plan appears unrealistic because Hamas has a monopoly on power in Gaza, Hafiz says the alternative is to risk deepening the gulf between Gaza and the West Bank.
“If there is no acceptance for this proposal, the border with Egypt will be open and Gaza will be closed to passage of goods from the West Bank. It will enact a real separation. It’s exactly what the Palestinians don’t want.”
Hamas, however, has balked at the PA plan, saying that it won’t allow Egypt and Abbas to revive the border protocols established under the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access (adopted after Israel’s military withdrawal), which stationed European monitors at the Rafah crossing and gave Israel the ability to observe by a remote video feed and close the border at will.
Samih Shabeeb, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, said that Egypt needs to find a compromise between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority on the crossing, and he predicted that Abbas is likely to bend first because he’s in the weakest position.
The border crisis is symbolic of the broader failure of the U.S., Israel and their moderate Arab allies to contain Hamas, he explained.
“There are new facts on the ground. The strength of Hamas is something that no one can bypass,” he said. “This represents the core problem of the Middle East.”
When the Palestinians broke the Rafah border wall erected by the Israelis last week, they broke through a several-month economic siege by Israel to pressure the 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to stop firing rockets into southern Israel.
Suddenly Israel’s policy seemed to be turned on its head — creating even more serious security threats than the rocket fire. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority, which had been accused of complicity with the Israeli policy, appeared powerless to solve a crisis in territory over which it claims sovereignty.
But Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian Authority would stick by its policy since the Hamas takeover in Gaza of rejecting talks with the Islamic militants as long as they refuse to rescind the June 2007 takeover.
“Hamas must know that any dialogue must be after the [reversal] of the coup. I will not allow Palestine to be North Korea and South Korea. I will not go and negotiate with Hamas under the gun of their coup d’etat.”
Erekat added that the Palestinian Authority realizes it will need help from Egypt to implement its offer to deploy security forces on the border.
Watching from the side is Israel — which desperately wants the border closed for fear Hamas militants in Gaza will use the breach into Egypt to export terrorism into the Sinai and then back across the Sinai’s porous border with Israel.
On the other hand, some Israeli officials like Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai have said that the newly opened border with Egypt should be exploited to shift responsibility to Egypt for the territory of 1.5 million people, and effect a total separation between Israel and Gaza. Others have suggested that the open trade with Egypt undermines the customs union between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the Gaza economy should be excluded from commercial taxation.
Egypt has already rejected the idea that it should become the main address for Gaza’s humanitarian aid and be responsible for security. The crisis has also exacerbated bilateral relations with Israel, and has the potential to continue to undermine the 25-year strategic link in the region.
“We see Gaza and Hamas emerging as a focal point of friction between Israel and Egypt,” said Yossi Alpher, editor of Bitterlemons.org, an online Israeli-Palestinian opinion forum.
Hamas now has an opportunity to break out of its diplomatic isolation because it has new power to enflame the border, Alpher said.
“It’s exposed to the world, and especially to its own Palestinian constituency, the futility of the Israeli strategy of economic pressure and collective punishment on Gaza. It exposes the false premises of the Israeli government. People are asking what Olmert learned from the Lebanon war, if the decisions they make on such issues produce such unanticipated and self-defeating results.”
Ayman Daragmeh, a Hamas legislator from the West Bank, said the Islamic militants are looking to negotiate an agreement with the Egyptians and the Palestinian Authority to create a “Palestinian-Egyptian” border crossing. Hamas could tolerate presidential guard soldiers, he said, as long as they work in coordination with Hamas’ security forces.
The Hamas legislator said that the Islamic militants won’t agree to the return of third-party observers like the Europeans (not to mention the Israelis). “We need a free Palestinian-Egyptian passage without Israeli intervention,” he said. “The European role was only to represent an Israeli interest.”
Despite the tug of war with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Egypt and Israel at the border, Erekat said that the key to the fate of both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority lies in the hands of the peace negotiators. If Palestinians and Israelis reach an agreement by the end of 2008, it would eventually undermine Hamas’ rule and force it to disappear as a political force, he said.
If there is no agreement, he predicted, then it will be the Palestinian Authority that will disappear.