A risky undertaking

The positive Egyptian response to an Israeli request for support in the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip has been praised by the international community. According to the Israeli government, the Egyptian role should be confined to Palestinian security sector reform, training and oversight of Palestinian security personnel, as well as controlling the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza.

Egypt has made its involvement conditional on the fulfillment of some factors essential for success. It expects both sides to refrain from violence against each other. It expects Israel to withdraw completely from the Gaza Strip, including from the Philadelphi road, to guarantee abstention from all military operations in the evacuated territories, and to finally establish safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank. Egypt expects the Palestinian Authority to restructure its complex security apparatus into three branches under the interior minister’s authority and to empower the Palestinian prime minister substantially.

However, these conditions are unlikely to be fulfilled. The Israeli government has announced that it will keep control of all land and maritime borders of the Gaza Strip as well as the airspace, and it has asserted its right to carry out military operations in all evacuated areas. And while the Palestinian president has finally announced the consolidation of the security forces into three branches and reshuffled senior security positions, these overdue moves have triggered violent protests by members of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza as well as a series of resignations: from the prime minister (since withdrawn) to heads of security services. The protests indicate not only the degree to which the PA has already lost the monopoly of power and its capability to effectively provide for security on the ground, but also the urge for a much more comprehensive reform, clean leadership, and more inclusive policies if legitimacy is to be regained.

Due to Egypt’s interest in deescalating the situation on its northeastern border, preventing a takeover by Islamist forces in Gaza, and deflecting American pressure for reform, it is doubtful whether Egypt will indeed insist on all conditions being fulfilled before getting substantially involved. While the Palestinian leadership has welcomed an Egyptian security role in Gaza, Palestinian factions have clearly voiced their opposition, as they are afraid of Egyptian and (in the West Bank) Jordanian involvement in the security sector that will effectively limit the PA’s competencies and endanger the sovereignty of a future Palestinian state.

The Egyptian security role in Gaza therefore involves considerable risks. First, it holds the danger of Palestinian-Egyptian tensions, Israeli-Egyptian tensions, and last but not least of dragging Egypt into the conflict. Second, it is very doubtful whether the Egyptian security forces are the most suitable for training their Palestinian counterparts in anti-terrorism measures that not only are effective but also compatible with international human rights standards. We should definitely not support the emergence of another repressive and authoritarian regime in Gaza with Egyptian surveillance, repeating the mistakes of the Oslo period–and laying the foundations for the next intifada to follow.

The European Union should support Ariel Sharon’s efforts to evacuate settlements and troops from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, albeit in the context of a process leading to a viable two-state solution as stipulated in the roadmap. Egypt surely can help (as it does already) by mediating the national dialogue and ceasefire talks among the Palestinian factions, and it can act as a go-between in the withdrawal preparations of Israelis and Palestinians. But we should not have illusions that the Egyptian government has the capacity and power to create the complex conditions necessary for a successful withdrawal and a resumption of the peace process, much less the reconstruction of evacuated areas and the launching of economic development–for which access to international markets and work permits in Israel are essential (at least in the short- to medium-term).

On top of the economic aspects, three main issues will determine the Palestinian population’s support for the withdrawal: internal security, broad legitimacy of the political leadership, and the prospect of a solution to the conflict and the end of occupation. Thus, security cannot only be interpreted as Israel’s security, to be realized through counter-terrorism measures. Security also entails implementing law and order and ending the reign of gangs and militias in parts of the Palestinian territories. That, however, requires the restoration of a monopoly of power as well as transparency and accountability of the security services. It also means involving the young guard of Fateh, moderate Islamists, and other opposition groups in the political process and in sharing responsibilities–thus giving the PA the legitimacy it needs to enforce law and order. The international community should therefore support the national dialogue and urge the PA to hold elections, particularly ! at the local level, in the near future.

At the same time, international support for the Palestinian security apparatus is crucial for breaking out of the cycle of violence. The security force training already underway is not sufficient. There is also a need for an international presence on the ground. A key task for such a military presence–together with the PA–would be to disarm the population and act against groups that continue to engage in attacks against Israel. Only if this is done successfully will Israel cease to carry out preventive or retaliatory military operations. Such a presence would be welcomed by a majority of the Palestinians, provided it is perceived as a means for ending the occupation and not as a tool for its continuation. This, however, will not be the case as long as nothing more than a permanent interim situation is on the horizon. Thus Egyptian support cannot be a substitute for a substantial and sustained involvement of the international community ensuring a successful withdrawal and r! einvigorating a peace process aimed at a negotiated conflict settlement.