Gaza is ablaze. Israel is cementing the psychological barriers separating the two peoples into a physical one, and the current intifada is grinding on toward its fourth bloody anniversary. Faced with such a grim situation, it is hardly surprising that people seeking peace will grasp at any ray of hope. The latest Egyptian diplomatic initiative to revive the peace process is sustained by a belief that the art of the possible will pave the way for the wishful.
In war and in peace, Egypt has been a central player in the Arab-Israel conflict. But under the militarist unilateralism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and United States President George W. Bush, Egypt has seen its status as a broker wither. With this lost prestige, anger at home at the Israeli occupation and the US invasion of Iraq, a faltering economy, frustration at the lack of political reform, and unease at having left the Palestinians behind when it forged a separate peace, Cairo desperately needs a breakthrough. In a bid to hasten Sharon’s declared Gaza pullout, Egyptian officials have committed themselves to underwriting stability in the Strip.
One of the key problems with this latest drive is that–like previous "confidence building" plans–it is designed to respond more to Israeli security concerns than to any vision of a long-term resolution of this complex, multi-faceted conflict. What’s more, Israel has thus far rejected Egypt’s requirements for a complete withdrawal (including from the famous Philadelphi road on the border), a full settlement freeze, and ending its assassination policy–so the initiative may never come to pass. Nonetheless, it is useful here to explore the implications of a potential Egyptian presence.
First, Gaza Palestinians would still not be getting self-rule. In effect, instead of living under Israeli occupation, they would be part of an Egyptian "protectorate", as they were prior to the 1967 war. Of course, for many Palestinians, being under the authority of fellow Arabs would seem preferable to being under Israeli rule. However, there are certain dangers inherent to an Egyptian presence in Gaza. Even though bold Egyptian diplomacy paved the way for the slow and painful process of reconciliation, the peace that currently exists between Egypt and Sharon’s Israel is cool and tense at best. In such a context, it is probably a good thing that a huge swath of demilitarized desert in the Sinai separates the region’s two most powerful armies.
Were Egypt to take control of Gaza, this buffer zone would effectively be removed, bringing Egyptian troops–albeit a small force–into frontline contact with the Israeli military. Realizing the risks involved, Egyptian diplomats have been trying to extract ceasefire pledges from the more extreme Palestinian factions, and Cairo has indicated that it will not enter Gaza without an Israeli promise to cease all military operations.
However, even if Egypt were to receive such pledges from both sides, truces in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are by no means set in stone. On the ground, this might leave Cairo with certain unpleasant choices to make. In order to ensure that nothing rocked the boat with its tense neighbor, it might feel compelled to employ–like the discredited Palestinian Authority before it–heavy-handed tactics with the Palestinian population. This would breed resentment among the residents of Gaza toward a country they had perceived as an ally.
A grimmer risk is that a relatively small spark may set off the whole tinderbox and draw Egypt and Israel into a direct and bloody conflict, after more than three decades of peace. For instance, a series of suicide bombers might get through into Israel. This could lead the Israeli government to talk tough to appease public outrage and go in to "weed out" those responsible. If Israel were to send in helicopter gun ships, or even F16s, how would Egyptian forces on the ground react? What kind of a chain reaction would an Israeli incursion set off?
But even assuming that Egyptian guardianship of Gaza brought about a semblance of stability and an official end to the second intifada there, this would be short-lived. On the political front, the Egyptian initiative sets a dangerous precedent in that it implicitly encourages Sharon to move the goalposts of a final settlement into the realm of unsustainability. This means that the initiative would, at best, offer only temporary reprieve until the Palestinians discovered that, in return for the stretch of arid Gaza real estate, they are expected to give up most of their claim to the West Bank, defeating their half-century struggle for a homeland. The symbolically and emotionally important issues of Jerusalem and the millions of refugees who have grown up in camps across the Middle East would also be left in perpetual limbo.
In Egypt, popular wisdom has it that breaking a fast on only an onion leaves you feeling hungry and cheated. Feeling just so short-changed, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank might feel compelled to launch a third intifada, and the cycle of attack and counterattack, of tit for tat, would return. After more than 55 years of conflict, Palestinians and Israelis deserve not just any solution, but a just resolution to their differences. This may lie either in a binational state or a fair two-state solution. Ariel Sharon’s plans for Gaza, and Egypt’s offer to underwrite them, do not come close to meeting this standard.
But if Israel wishes to pull out unilaterally, it should leave the Gaza Strip’s control in the hands of its people. Some observers point to the recent descent toward anarchy in the Palestinian territories as a reason to support the Egyptian initiative and postpone Palestinian self-rule. However, as the recent protests against PA corruption and cronyism demonstrate, the Palestinian people can manage their own affairs. With the PA discredited and its infrastructure destroyed by the Israelis, who should run Gaza? Before any pullout occurs, internationally organized and independently monitored elections should be held. The winner of those elections should be recognized as the interim leader of Gaza by Israel and the international community and be supported in his or her quest to rebuild a functioning society.