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Geoffrey Aronson

Egypt pushes Gaza back toward Israel

Egypt began demolishing houses in Rafah last November (Anadolu)

Date of publication: 14 February, 2015

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Analysis: Sisi may have identified Hamas as a threat to his rule, but Egypt's moves in Gaza are also a pushback against Israel's strategy of divesting itself of an area still under its occupation.

Four years into Egypt’s ongoing revolution, the Sinai Peninsula has moved from the periphery to the centre of Egypt’s national security concerns.

 

The conflict has degenerated into an escalating dirty war – a counterinsurgency battle waged by combat forces of a reinforced Egyptian army against a potent combination of jihadi and locally disaffected tribes that shows no sign of abating.

 

Indeed a recent series of spectacular, bloody attacks by the

     Sharon intended to transform Gaza from an area under occupation to a zone where the less restrictive rules of war applied.

newly minted “Sinai Province” on military and civilian targets in and around el-Arish signal an escalation of the war waged against Cairo – the most deadly challenge that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has encountered.

 

To combat this growing challenge Cairo’s default option has been to increase the use of force against the rebellion. Long-enforced treaty restrictions on Egypt’s military deployment in the Sinai are today impossible to reconcile with the joint Israeli-Egyptian interest in defeating the insurgency. With Israel’s support, Egypt has deployed a still-limited but growing complement of military forces and equipment. At least 18 Egyptian battalions are reported to be deployed in Sinai, primarily in the northwest near Rafah and el-Arish.

 

The Sisi government has also undertaken a number of equally controversial steps aimed at separating the Gaza Strip from Sinai and Egypt itself.

 

These actions are not occurring in a vacuum. They are responses to what Cairo believes to be two related strategic challenges – one centred in Hamas-led Gaza, the other centred in Jerusalem.

 

While most attention has been paid to Cairo’s ever increasing hardline towards Gaza and the Hamas leadership there, Egyptian concerns about Israel’s plans for the impoverished area also loom at least as large in its calculations.

 

There is both a tactical and strategic dimension to Egypt’s broad effort. On a tactical level Egypt is constructing both administrative and material barriers – to limit and obstruct if not to completely sever links between Egypt and Gaza. Most visible is the extension of the state of emergency and the associated construction of a 1km-wide “sterile” zone on the Egyptian side of what was once known as the Philadephi border running from the Mediterranean along the 12km-long southern border of the Gaza Strip. 

 

This “sterile” zone in particular is straight out of Israel’s playbook, involving the demolition of buildings and homes, and the wholesale displacement of local residents. Over 1,000 families have been forcefully evacuated so far and more than 2,000 further families are expected to by moved after a second phase of demolitions that began at the end of January.

Countering Israel

But for Sisi, these are effective measures to complicate Gaza’s ability to resurrect the tunnel economy that flourished during Mohammad Morsi’s short tenure and provided a lifeline over the years when the Strip has been under a punishing Israeli economic blockade.

 

On the border itself, Egypt has taken care that the sole official transit point between Gaza and Egypt at the Rafah terminal functions intermittently at best. As a result, traffic across the border in either direction has become the exception rather than the rule. Restrictions on official trade, with occasional exceptions for shipments of humanitarian assistance across the border, are even more draconian than the trade regime operated by Israel.

 

Cairo has made no secret of its belief that the Hamas movement poses a tangible threat to Egypt’s national security. Hamas is no minority player in Palestinian politics. The Islamist movement has ruled Gaza for over seven years and it commands a military organization – Izzedine al-Qassam – able to fight Israel and believed by Egyptian intelligence to maintain close links with opponents of the Egyptian regime.

 

Israel’s effort to force Egypt to shoulder responsibilities Jerusalem no longer wants to bear in Gaza adds a critical ingredient to this incendiary mix.

 

In 2004, Israel’s Prime Minster Ariel Sharon shocked Israelis and Egyptians alike when he announced his intention to “disengage” Israel from Gaza and its almost 2 million Palestinians. Cairo viewed this move as first and foremost a unilateral Israeli challenge to formulate new rules of the game on Gaza at Egypt’s expense – rules that had been in place since Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank began in June 1967.

 

This of course was Sharon’s intention. He intended to transform Gaza from an area under Israeli occupation to a zone where the less restrictive rules of war applied. Israel’s wars since the evacuation of its troops and settlers in 2005 bears this out. Sharon intimates also floated the idea of expanding Gaza’s territory with land ceded by Egypt. From Cairo there could be no clearer challenge to Egyptian sovereignty implicit in Israel’s disengagement policy after 2004.

 

Sharon was confident that Egypt would have no choice but to swallow Gaza. Mubarak in the twilight years of his rule was, indeed too weak to put up much of a challenge. He managed to increase and rebrand Egyptian police forces along the border with Gaza, when Israel retreated from the Philadephi border, but Israel refused his entreaties to enable Egypt to deploy combat forces to fill the vacuum caused by the Israeli military’s departure.

 

As Israel progressively limited its trade with Gaza the burden would necessarily fall on Egypt. As one Gazan explained it at the time, “the toothpaste has to come out of the tube somewhere. If not through Israel than through Egypt.”

 

Morsi may have been prepared to move Egypt in this direction, but Sisi is emphatically opposed. Soon after assuming power in July 2013, he began to push back against the defining features of Israel’s new game. By moving against the tunnel economy and limiting access to the border crossing, Sisi sent a clear message to Israel that Egypt would oppose a continuing reduction of Israel’s profile in Gaza at Egypt’s expense.

 

Israel has indeed blinked, increasing it trade and transit regime with Gaza even as Egypt closed the tunnels and reduced access to the Rafah crossing terminal. The most recent decision to clear the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza is a sign of Egypt’s intention to divorce itself from Gaza, but Jerusalem is the principal address.

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