Strategic Implications for Israel of the Gaza-Egypt Border Opening

Vol. 7, No. 30      February 5, 2008

  • Some had hoped that pressuring Hamas in Gaza via sanctions, while helping to create a stable and prosperous Palestinian society in the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas, would trigger support for Abbas’ leadership in Gaza. However, Hamas, via Gaza’s new-found access to Egyptian materials, goods, and services, can now ease Gaza’s depressed condition and diminish the differences between Gaza and the more prosperous West Bank.
  • For the first time in the history of the modern Middle East, Hamas – the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ideological cousin of al-Qaeda – has gained full control over contiguous territory and population, and has now effectively become a state government without real opponents.
  • In sharp contrast to Fatah’s yet unfulfilled promises, the Palestinian public sees Hamas’ dramatic opening of the Gaza-Egypt border as the latest in a series of successful actions. Others include Hamas’ surprise January 2006 electoral victory over Fatah, its kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the sustained rocketing of southern Israel, and Hamas’ expulsion of Fatah forces from Gaza and the establishment of its control over the government there in June 2007.
  • Terrorist operatives and groups such as al-Qaeda, that have already used Egyptian Sinai as a rear base, can now reach Gaza without interference. Gaza has transformed from its prior status as part of the Palestinian Authority to its new role as a mini-state that is now an integral part of the Arab world. Hamas will now be able to obtain weapons, ammunition, explosives, and training more freely via Egyptian Sinai. Since the border opening, weapons have flowed unimpeded into Gaza, enabling the transfer of higher-grade weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles.
  • Al-Qaeda operatives already infiltrated the Gaza Strip from Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen back in 2006. After the breach of the Egyptian-Gaza border, many Palestinians trained in Syria and Iran easily returned to Gaza. With the open flow of Palestinians into Sinai, there are also increased prospects for attacks against Israeli targets by terrorists infiltrating across Israel’s long border with Sinai. If Egypt is forced to take responsibility for Gaza, Israel will have to more carefully weigh its military responses to Hamas terror actions originating from the Strip.


The Recognized Government of the State of Gaza

Hamas’ breaching of the 12-kilometer security fence separating Gaza from Egyptian Sinai on January 23,2008, with the acquiescence of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, has triggered major shifts in the triangular relationship between Israel, Gaza, and Egypt.

Hamas’ opening of Gaza’s southern border to Egypt was a well-planned strategic move that has effectively knighted Hamas as the recognized government of a new state of Gaza. Previously, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and some Israelis had hoped that pressuring Hamas in Gaza via sanctions, while helping to create a stable and prosperous Palestinian society in the West Bank under Fatah leader and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, would trigger support for Abbas’ leadership in Gaza.

However, recent events in Gaza have buried this possibility for the foreseeable future. Hamas, via Gaza’s new-found access to Egyptian materials, goods, and services, can now ease Gaza’s depressed economic condition, and thereby diminish the differences between Gaza and the more prosperous West Bank. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flooded the northeastern corner of the Sinai Peninsula after January 23, spending approximately $130 million in local Egyptian markets.1

The opening of the state of Gaza to Egypt reinforces Hamas control that no external pressure will be able to reverse at this juncture. The prospects of Mahmoud Abbas regaining control in Gaza are remote at best. Despite reports of an agreement with Egypt to include Abbas’ Palestinian Presidential Guard at Gaza’s Rafah border crossing, Hamas will not give up its achievement and  allow  forces loyal to Abbas to control the border, despite Egypt’s preference for such an arrangement.2

The radical Hamas government, which is financed, trained, and armed by Iran, has proven itself as an effective military and political force. Hamas has upgraded its strategic posture by opening its southern border and forcing its Egyptian neighbor to allow free and largely unimpeded access for nearly two weeks for hundreds of thousands of Gazans who crossed Egypt’s sovereign borders and returned to Gaza at will. Hamas’ success in forcing Egypt to negotiate over the crisis has established Hamas’ upgraded status.3 Hamas has agreed to cooperate with Egypt to close the breached border. However, the gesture is temporary and must also be considered in the context of Hamas’ stated intention to disengage completely from Israel, abandon the Israeli shekel and adopt an Arab currency, and seek fuel, utilities, trade, and a new open border regime with Egypt.4

 

A Territory Under Islamist Control

This crisis may also be seen in a much broader and far-reaching political and ideological context. For the first time in the history of the modern Middle East (other than the limited case of Hassan Turabi’s Sudan5), Hamas – the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ideological precursor to al-Qaeda6 – has gained full control over contiguous territory and population, and has now effectively become a state government without real opponents or internal challenges for power.

Gaza’s new open border with Egypt represents the fulfillment of a long-held dream by the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, and suggests far-reaching ramifications for neighboring Arab countries including Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. In fact, on January 27, 2008, a senior Muslim Brotherhood delegation from the Egyptian parliament paid an official visit to Hamas’ government compound in Gaza.7 A senior Hamas delegation headed by its political leader, Khaled Mashal, has also been invited to Saudi Arabia to discuss “developments” since the border was opened.8

 

The Sunset of Fatah

In the Palestinian-Israeli context, Hamas’ success enhances its political power among Palestinians and further weakens Mahmoud Abbas’ image as the leader of the Palestinian people. While Abbas is eager to return Fatah control to Gaza, recent events have ratcheted up Hamas’ control.

In sharp contrast to Fatah’s failed and corrupt government, the Palestinian public sees Hamas’ dramatic opening of the Gaza-Egypt border as the latest in a series of successful actions. Others include Hamas’ surprise January 2006 electoral victory over Fatah, its kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the sustained rocketing of southern Israel, and Hamas’ expulsion of Fatah forces from Gaza and the establishment of its control over the government there in June 2007. Hamas’ border breach has also been a signal to Egypt of the Gaza government’s strength.9

The events in Gaza may signal an historic change: the end of Fatah as the ruling political power in Palestinian society. Fatah’s continued control in Palestinian areas of the West Bank today is the direct result of the Israel Defense Forces’ control of the territory. Only the continuing IDF operations in the West Bank have prevented Hamas from staging a takeover similar to its military coup against Fatah in Gaza in 2007.

 

An Enemy State with an Open Door

Another strategic shift is reflected in Gaza’s new status as an enemy state entity with open borders. Gaza has transformed from its prior status as part of the Palestinian Authority to its new role as a mini-state that is now an integral part of the Arab world. Hamas will now be able to more freely obtain weapons, ammunition, explosives, and training via Egyptian Sinai. Since the border opening, advanced weapons have flowed unimpeded into Gaza across the Egyptian border, enabling the transfer of higher-grade weapons than can be smuggled via underground tunnels.

The Israel Security Agency has confirmed that Hamas smuggled large amounts of long-range rockets, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles into Gaza since the border was breached.10 This new weaponry will enable the continued upgrade of Hamas’ highly disciplined army that is largely financed and trained by Iran and is modeled after the Iranian-backed Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Terrorist operatives and groups such as al-Qaeda, that have already used Egyptian Sinai as a rear base, are now able to reach Gaza more easily. Several al-Qaeda-affiliated operatives, some of whom infiltrated from Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen, have been active in Gaza since 2006. Over time, al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations have also emerged in Gaza, including Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) that was responsible for the kidnapping of BBC journalist Alan Johnston. Other groups were also formed like Jaish al-Umma (Army of the Nation), Al-Qaeda in Palestine, and Mujahidin Beit al-Makdes (Holy Warriors of Jerusalem), which attacked the American International School in Gaza in January 2008.11

Global jihadi leaders, such as Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Ansari of the Lebanese-based Fatah al-Islam, called for jihadi fighters around the world to exploit the breached Rafah crossing and enter Gaza.12 With the open flow of Palestinians into Sinai, there are also increased prospects for attacks against Israeli targets by terrorists infiltrating across Israel’s long border with Sinai.

It must be understood that Hamas is no longer merely a well-trained guerilla terror force. Rather, Hamas must be confronted as a state army that uses guerilla tactics and terrorism while, simultaneously, it prepares for all-out war against Israel. With each passing day that Israel does not mobilize for a major ground operation in Gaza, it will be more difficult for the IDF to enter Gaza and destroy Hamas, whose growing Katyusha rocket arsenal has already reached Ashkelon and can strike major Israeli urban centers 20 kilometers north of Gaza, like Kiryat Gat and Ashdod.

At the same time, Hamas and other terror groups continue to fire shorter-range Kassam rockets at Sderot and other Israeli localities. Since January 1, 2008, alone, more than 420 rockets have been fired into southern Israel from Gaza.13

 

Completing Israel‘s Disengagement from Gaza

Following the opening of the Gaza-Sinai border, Israel can now complete the disengagement it undertook in September 2005 and seal its border with Gaza, prohibiting the entry or exit of persons and commercial goods, or, as has occurred recently, explosives disguised as commercial materials.14

Israel and Egypt had negotiated the administration of Gaza in the framework of the 1978 Camp David Accords. However, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat refused to take responsibility for the Strip. Instead, Sadat insisted only on establishing an Egyptian liaison office in Gaza. However, Prime Minister Menachem Begin rejected the Egyptian demand.15

Today, however, a newly-sealed Israel-Gaza border would force Egypt into the role of state custodian for the Gaza Strip. The opening of the Egypt-Gaza border has demonstrated that Egypt can play a key role as a supplier of goods and services to Gazans. Egypt can also supply utilities such as gas, electricity, and water, and raw materials such as cement.

Egypt sees itself as the Arab world’s leading power, and will not stand idly by and allow Palestinians in Gaza to suffer shortages if Israel closes its border with Gaza. Egypt’s humanitarian role has been the basis of Mubarak’s justification for allowing the border to remain open and it is unlikely that Egypt will suddenly reverse this policy in the future.

While certain benefits may accrue to Israel as a result of a shift in Egypt-Gaza relations, there are also possible dangers for Israel-Egypt relations, which are a vital strategic asset for both Jerusalem and Cairo. If Egypt is forced to take responsibility for Gaza, Israel will have to more carefully weigh its military responses to Hamas terror actions originating from the Strip. Israel’s strategic flexibility could be reduced due to any direct Egyptian role in Gaza. Israel may benefit if it is no longer the responsible party for the welfare of Gaza’s citizens. But at the same time, Israel loses its ability to monitor what enters and exits over Gaza’s border with Egypt.

 

The Iranian Role

The Iranian role is another troubling aspect of the new situation in Gaza. Iran’s direct and robust backing of its Hamas proxy, via Khaled Mashal and the Damascus-based Hamas leadership, has essentially created a reinforced Gaza base to export Iranian terror and expand Iranian political control in the region. It is no small irony that now, Egyptian-assisted Gaza has become a second Iranian gateway to the Arab world, in addition to Syria, from which to subvert and assert control over Arab countries and territories, as part of Iran’s grand strategy to achieve regional hegemony under a nuclear umbrella.

*     *     *

Notes

1. Ehud Yaari, “Egypt Working to Contain Gaza,” Policy Watch #1337, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 1, 2008.

2. “Egypt Agrees to Abbas Control over Gaza Border, Palestinian Officials Say,” Ynet News, January 27, 2008.

3. Khaled Abu Toameh, “Cairo Invites Hamas Representatives for Talks on Rafah Border Situation, Jerusalem Post, January 28, 2008.

4. “Egypt to Close Rafah Sunday; Hamas Says It Will Cooperate,” Jerusalem Post, February 2, 2008. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya was quoted as saying, “We have said from the days of our election campaign that we want to move toward economic disengagement from the Israeli occupation. Egypt has a greater ability to meet the needs of Gaza.” Haniya’s senior advisor, Ahmad Youssef, added that “Hamas has already generated plans and proposals to unite economically with Egypt instead of Israel.” According to Hamas, Egypt can serve as “Gaza’s gateway” to the Arab and Muslim world and as its in-depth strategic partner. Roee Nahmias, “Hamas Considering Economic Disengagement from Israel,” YNET News, February 2, 2008, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3501759,00.html

5. Lt.-Col. (res.) Jonathan Dahoah-Halevi, “The Muslim Brotherhood: A Moderate Islamic Alternative to al-Qaeda or a Partner in Global Jihad?” Jerusalem Viewpoints #558, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, November 1, 2007. “The links between the Muslim Brotherhood and global terrorism were also made evident by the reception Hassan al-Turabi, a high-ranking Muslim Brother and at that time one of the heads of Sudan, provided for al-Qaeda in the early 1990s. In 1991, accepting al-Turabi’s personal invitation, Osama bin Laden moved from Saudi Arabia to Sudan and established a terrorist network there. In addition, al-Turabi founded the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference, some of whose members were the PLO, Hamas, Hizbullah, al-Qaeda, and the Egyptian Jihad. The Conference met in April 1991, December 1993, and March 1995. In August 1993, in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center, the United States included Sudan in its designated list of terrorism-sponsoring states.” http://www.jcpa.org/JCPA/Templates/ShowPage.asp?DRIT=2&DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=111&FID=379&PID=0&IID=1920&TTL= The_Muslim_Brotherhood:_A_Moderate_Islamic_Alternative_to_al-Qaeda_or_a_Partner_in_Global_Jihad?

6. Dore Gold, “Ties between al-Qaeda and Hamas in Mideast Are Long and Frequent,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 5, 2006, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi? file=/chronicle/archive/2006/03/05/INGERHG75F1.DTL

7. Israeli Channel Two television news, January 27, 2008.

8. Avi Issacharoff and Barak Ravid, “Officials: Israel Won’t Let Gaza Border Breach Threaten Security,” Ha’aretz, January 28, 2008.

9. Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, January 29, 2008, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/pdf/ct_290108e.pdf

10. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/pdf/ct_290108e.pdf.  See also “Diskin: Gaza Breach Allowed Influx of Advanced Armament,” Jerusalem Post, February 3, 2008.

11. Lt.-Col. (res.) Jonathan Dahoah-Halevi, “The Growing Hamas/Al-Qaeda Connection, Jerusalem Issue Brief, v. 7, no. 1, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, May 17, 2007. See also “Leaflets of Al-Qaeda-Affiliate Found in Looted American School in Gaza,” Ha’aretz, January 15, 2008.

12. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/html/ct_290108e.htm

13. “Gaza: Why and What to Do About It,” Jewish Institute for National Security Studies, Report #740, January 24, 2008.

14. An IDF force checking a truck carrying humanitarian aid (flour, sugar, etc.) about to go through the Kerem Shalom crossing into the Gaza Strip found two tons of dual-purpose fertilizer, also used in the manufacture of explosives for rockets and bombs. It was not the first time that the terrorist organizations had tried to smuggle explosives into the Gaza Strip by disguising them as humanitarian aid. See “News of the Israeli-Palestinian Confrontation,” January 9-15, 2008, Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/eng/eng_n/jan_9_15_08e.htm

15. According to Dr. Meir Rosenne, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, who was part of the Israeli negotiating team at the 1978 Camp David Accords, in a phone interview, February 4, 2008.

*     *     *

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, Chairman of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs, is former commander of the IDF’s National Defense College and the IDF Staff and Command College. He is also former head of the IDF’s Research and Assessment Division, with special responsibility for preparing the National Intelligence Assessment. Dan Diker is Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs and foreign policy analyst of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

About Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror is Israel's national security advisor. He formerly served as director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is former commander of the IDF's National Defense College and the IDF Staff and Command College and former head of the IDF's Research and Assessment Division, with special responsibility for preparing the National Intelligence Assessment. In addition, he served as the military secretary of the defense minister.