Security breakthrough

Whatever else happens with regard to the trade and customs aspects of the Rafah crossing dilemma, Israel’s approach to the security aspects represents a dramatic departure that bodes well for future border arrangements. Israel is in effect saying to the Palestinians that, under certain circumstances, it will drop many of its security demands concerning Palestine’s external borders.

In more than a decade of peace negotiations–both official and track II (informal) talks–Israeli security officials and thinkers have insisted that during a long transition period Israel must retain a physical presence at Palestine’s borders with Egypt and Jordan. The Israeli concern was that without its control, lethal ordnance would find its way into Palestinian territory, there to be deployed against Israelis. The Camp David II and other negotiating frameworks gradually reduced the length of this transition period, but even the January 2001 Taba talks and the later informal Geneva accord still provided for a three-year Israeli security presence at the future Palestinian border with Egypt at Rafah and at a Palestinian border with Jordan in the Jordan Valley. Israel’s inspectors, integrated into an international force, would scrutinize every person seeking to enter Palestine and examine every object being imported for possible lethal or dual use applications. Even after th! e Israeli presence was phased out, at the end of a three-year period, the rest of the international force would remain, with the same authority to deny entry.

In seeking solutions for the Palestinian-Egyptian border and the Rafah crossing after Israel’s full withdrawal from the philadelphi strip, the Sharon government appears to be offering a radically different solution. To a large extent, it is prepared to place its trust in an Egyptian role. It is saying to the PA/PLO: if you are prepared for the moment to cut Gaza off completely from the West Bank from an economic standpoint and establish a separate customs envelope, you and the Egyptians will have full control over the Rafah crossing–not after three years, but now. Never mind that the Palestinians see this as a disastrous option from the standpoint of Palestinian unity, and that Israel knows this and is calling their bluff. Israel is insisting on moving the crossing to Kerem Shalom and maintaining an Israeli presence there largely for economic rather than security reasons, i.e., because the PA/PLO wants at almost any cost to maintain the unified customs envelope.

The Sharon government has also signaled that the Kerem Shalom arrangements will of necessity be temporary. Within two or three years the Palestinians will in any case have a seaport at Gaza that will require a different economic regime. And the West Bank security fence will be completed, making it possible to establish "normal" border crossings for goods and people between Israel and both Gaza and the West Bank. Never mind that the Palestinians are unhappy with the fence (even though it came into being solely because the PA/PLO failed to prevent suicide bombings); the Israeli unilateral approach comprises a dramatic security departure that has positive ramifications for future links between a Palestinian state and the rest of the world, beginning with its neighbors in Egypt and Jordan.

These are the fruits of Sharon’s unilateral separation policy. From the Palestinian standpoint, they are undoubtedly very problematic with regard to the economic and in some ways the potential political unity of Gaza and the West Bank. But they go a long way toward meeting Palestinian demands for sovereign borders. From Israel’s standpoint, they constitute an offer to begin "Arabizing" the Palestinian security issue insofar as they reflect a new Israeli readiness to trust an Egyptian security role vis-a-vis Palestine, as well as a new Egyptian interest in taking on this responsibility.

Whether for the time being the crossing ends up, in whole or in part (i.e., the passage of goods separated from the passage of people) at Rafah or Kerem Shalom, Palestinians and the international community should take adequate note of an additional potential benefit of disengagement.