"Listen to me carefully," President Hosni Mubarak, of Egypt instructed an interviewer on Jan. 30. "Gaza is not part of Egypt, nor will it ever be …. I hear talk of a proposal to turn the Strip into an extension of the Sinai peninsula, of offloading responsibility for it onto Egypt" but Mubarak dismissed this as "nothing but a dream."
Hardly a dream. It's a reality that surfaced since January 23, when Hamas operatives breached large segments of the wall separating Gaza from Egypt. That unexpected step alerted the world that an Egyptian embargo, no less than an Israeli one, prevents Gazans from leaving their territory or trading with the outside world.
Given that Gazans have shown themselves incapable of responsible self-rule and Cairo has tacitly allowed the smuggling of arms since 2000, Mubarak needs to be made responsible for the Gaza Strip. As my column last week argued, "Washington and other capitals should declare the experiment in Gazan self-rule a failure and press Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to help."
Hamas partially concurs: One leader, Ismail Haniyeh, hopes Gaza can "move toward economic disengagement from the Israeli occupation," while another, Ahmad Youssef, wants the Gaza-Egypt border opened to trade and Egypt to serve as Gaza's "gateway" to the outside world. As Hamas promises that Cairo's re-closing the wall on Feb. 3 will not turn back the clock, Egypt's Muslim Brethren, a Hamas ally, demands the Gaza border be opened. Can Mubarak ignore these demands, popular among Egyptians? In effect, Gaza has already begun imposing itself on an unwilling Egypt.
Some Israelis wish to help it. Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, for example, holds that Cairo should take over economically. "When Gaza is open to the other side we lose responsibility for it. So we want to disconnect from it. We want to stop supplying electricity to them, stop supplying them with water and medicine." The Israeli supreme court having ruled on Jan. 30 that the government may reduce supplies of fuel and electricity to Gaza renders a cutoff feasible.
How to achieve Gaza's transfer? Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy suggests to me that Jerusalem announce three steps: "a date certain for the severing of Israel's provision of water, electricity and trade access, free entry for replacement services through Egypt, and an invitation for international support to link Gaza to Egyptian grids." Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, would also detach Gaza from its customs union with Israel and the West Bank.
These Israeli initiatives would force the Egyptian hand. Sure, the Egyptians, with help from Fatah and even Hamas, will try to resurrect the border and put the onus back on Israel. But in the end, Arab solidarity demands that Egyptian "brothers" fill in for the Israeli enemy. Once Jerusalem cuts supplies, Cairo has no choice but to furnish them. Economic dependence would then further involve Egypt, which has further consequences. It:
Revives the old idea of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict via a three-way partition by Egypt, Israel, and Jordan.
Permits Hamas to connect with its parent organization, the Muslim Brethren. Indeed, Egyptian security forces have already arrested at least 12 armed Hamas members in Egypt and other Gazans with suicide belts. Controlling Islamist violence out of Gaza will become an Egyptian priority – but Mubarak has coped with Islamists throughout his 27-year presidency and he can deal with this new challenge in ways that Israel cannot.
Limits the freedom for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to attack Israel. Yes, Egyptians want rockets falling on Sderot, but Cairo knows that their continuation invites Israeli reprisals and possibly a full-scale war.
To prevent Gazans from creating trouble in Egypt or attacking Israel requires heavy policing of their territory. This presumably means loosening the stringent restrictions on the deployment of Egyptian forces near the border with Israel in Annex I to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Fortunately, Egyptian security services in Gaza need be only lightly armed and the Multinational Force & Observers in the Sinai peninsula could add this monitoring duty to their tasks.
In brief, Gaza can be dumped on Egypt with confidence that the Egyptians must accept it and must impede Gazans from attacking Israel. Starting this "peace process," though, will require uncharacteristic imagination and energy from Israel and the Western states.