Egypt, Israel and Gaza – Flashpoint for Future Confrontation

February 16, 2011 by David Singer
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The Egyptian Revolution has raised questions as to the possible termination of the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty by Egypt. Any such concern – in the short term – seems to have been allayed by the Fourth Egyptian Military Statement issued on 12 February declaring:

“the country’s ministers will stay in power for the time being and international agreements and commitments will be honoured.”

Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Sameh Shoukry has described the three-decade-old peace treaty as mutually beneficial.

“We have derived a peace dividend from the treaty. We’ve been able to establish security and stability in the region. And I believe it is a main element in terms of our foreign policy,”

This is not the view of all Egyptians and calls have already been made for renegotiation of the Treaty. Dr Ayman Nur, leader of the Tomorrow Party told Egyptian Radio:

“The Camp David accord is over, Egypt must at least renegotiate the terms of the accord,”

This viewpoint must be regarded as political grandstanding with little chance of coming to fruition.

Two important factors virtually ensure that the Treaty will continue to operate in the long term:

  1. Egypt’s execution of the Treaty regained every square kilometer of land lost by Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War including airfields and oil fields in the Sinai. Any breach of the Treaty would put these important strategic and economic assets at risk of being lost by Egypt forever.
  2. An annex to the Israel – Egypt Peace Treaty contained the following pledge from then US President Jimmy Carter to Israel’s then Prime Minister Menachem Begin in a letter dated March 26, 1979 : “I wish to confirm to you that subject to United States Constitutional processes:
  3. In the event of an actual or threatened violation of the Treaty of Peace between Israel and Egypt, the United States will, on request of one or both of the Parties, consult with the Parties with respect thereto and will take such other action as it may deem appropriate and helpful to achieve compliance with the Treaty.”

However the prospects of conflict between Israel and Egypt in the immediate future could arise outside the Treaty involving the Philadelphi corridor  – a narrow stretch of sand, ten kilometers long and about a hundred meters wide, separating Egypt from the Gaza Strip – in which is situated the Rafah Crossing – the only exit and entry point between Egypt and Gaza.

The Philadelphia Corridor - Flashpoint for Potential Conflict

After Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in August 2005 this crossing was closed for three months until the signing of  two documents on 15 November 2005 by Israel and the Palestinian Authority

  • Agreement on Movement and Access and
  • Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing

which had resulted from negotiations facilitated by

  • US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice,
  • European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and
  • the international community’s envoy for the Israeli Disengagement from Gaza – James Wolfensohn.

For seven months, the crossing operated in an orderly manner, and some 1,320 persons crossed daily.

On 25 June 2006, following the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit Israel closed the crossing for security reasons allowing it to be opened only in isolated cases, and without giving advance notice. From then until June 2007, the crossing was closed for 265 days.

After Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Israel announced the freezing of the two Agreements. The Palestinian Authority was unable to have its control personnel reach the crossing due to Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip. Israel objected to opening the crossing on the grounds that the Palestinian Authority was unable to monitor the persons and goods passing through it. The European force also stopped its monitoring activities due to the European Union’s refusal to cooperate with Hamas.

Egypt – which was not a party to the 2005 Agreements – generally refrained from opening its side of the crossing due to its own national interest in preventing

  • the movement of terrorists, arms and equipment into and out of Gaza and
  • contacts between Hamas and the Moslem Brotherhood representatives

which threatened to undermine the decades long rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Article 2 of the Hamas Charter states that Hamas :

“is one of the wings of Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. Muslim Brotherhood Movement is a universal organization which constitutes the largest Islamic movement in modern times. It is characterised by its deep understanding, accurate comprehension and its complete embrace of all Islamic concepts of all aspects of life, culture, creed, politics, economics, education, society, justice and judgement, the spreading of Islam, education, art, information, science of the occult and conversion to Islam.”

Whether Egypt maintains this blockade in the current circumstances remains a worry. Neither the Fourth Egyptian Army statement nor the Statement of Sameh Shoukry offer any such assurance that the status quo will be maintained.

Israel cannot allow the uncontrolled movement of people and goods through the Rafah crossing.  Failure by the Egyptian Army to maintain its current controls at the Rafah crossing – or any loosening of the controls currently in place – could almost certainly result in Israel returning there to ensure its own strategic interests and the security of its citizens are preserved by controlling who and what is allowed in and out between Egypt and Gaza.

Maj. Gen. Doron Almog who served as head of Israel’s Southern Command from 2000 to 2003 presciently gave his opinion in 2004 when he stated:

“The situation on Israel’s southern border, and in the Philadelphi corridor, is a complex barometer for all of the region’s problems. Not only does it register the ups and downs in Israeli-Palestinian relations. It reflects the state of Egypt’s relations with Israel and the Palestinians, and the situation in Egypt and Gaza itself, where sub-state actors, led by Islamists, have progressively eroded the authority of the Egyptian state and the PA. Smuggling and infiltration must be understood—and fought—in these broader contexts.”

These grim warnings have taken on a new meaning with the tumultuous events in Gaza since then and following the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions that have spawned people power spreading and making its presence felt in Algeria, Yemen Jordan and Iran.

A very small – but highly strategic – sliver of real estate once again holds the key to possible future conflict in the Middle East.

David Singer is a Sydney Lawyer and Foundation Member of the International Analysts Network

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