Neither tunnels nor a buffer zone with Gaza: Egypt officials

Dina Ezzat , Friday 6 Sep 2013

Egyptian officials say they want to help Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but this cannot be at the expense of national security

In this image taken from video, Egyptian Army personnel supervise the destruction of tunnels between the Egypt and the Gaza Strip at the border near the town of Rafah, northern Sinai, Egypt, Tuesday Sept. 3, 2013. (Photo: AP)

Cairo is working closely with the UN to help Gaza find an alternative to the tunnels linking it with Egypt, government officials have told Ahram Online.

"We are exploring a few options and the UN is conducting talks with Hamas leaders in Gaza to find a way forward. We acknowledge the needs of Gazans to find a stable and legal way to get supplies ranging from food to medicine, and we insist that Israel, in its capacity as occupying power, honours its responsibility towards Palestinians,” says one.

According to another, Robert Serry, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East, is currently working with all concerned parties, including Israel, to explore a mechanism to help expand the very limited list of goods that Israel allows Gazans to import under the pretext of denying the Hamas-ruled population access to material that could be used to develop weapons.

The consultations conducted by both Serry and Cairo, independently and jointly, also include an arrangement to facilitate the transport of individuals to and from the Gaza Strip through the Egyptian Rafah crossing point – basically the only access to the outside world for 1.5 million Gazans.

Sources suggest one formula being considered for re-introduction, either as it used to be or with some amendments, is the 2005 agreement concluded by the US and Gaza (then still under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA)), Egypt, Israel and a group of European Union monitors. The deal permitted the monitoring of imports by EU teams, which also spared Egypt from having to put up with Israeli allegations about the smuggling of any non-permitted good into Gaza.

"As far as we are concerned, we want to help the Palestinians in Gaza have an easier time but this cannot be done at the expense of Egyptian security – there is no going back and no flexibility on this matter,” says a security source.

Since president Mohamed Morsi was ousted, Cairo has been destroying what officials say are hundreds of tunnels linking Egypt's eastern border with the Gaza Strip.

According to the security source, over 50 percent of the tunnels have been destroyed and "we are currently taking the necessary security arrangements to make sure these tunnels will not be rebuilt."

While the security source declined to say if these new security arrangements would resume the construction of thick metal bars on the border to prevent the reconstruction of tunnels, other government officials say the measures will be "varied," but would not amount to establishing a "buffer zone" between Egypt and Gaza.

"We are talking about tougher security arrangements but we are not planning a buffer zone," insists one. He added that any tension between Hamas leaders in Gaza and Cairo, following Hamas' unfavourable reaction to Morsi's removal, would not prompt Cairo to "undermine strategic interests to keep in close contact with Gaza."

During the past few days, Egypt and Hamas have had a showdown that escalated when Cairo envoys to Hamas were arrested for a day before being released upon contacts with Hamas members in the West Bank, and Hamas leaders residing in Cairo since they left Damascus.

The Hamas leaders had been particularly annoyed, according to the Cairo narrative, about the shortage of fuel supplies passing through to Gaza "illicitly."

On Thursday, Hamas officials said fuel shortage could force the electricity service in Gaza to collapse completely.

"In light of the exceptional circumstances the Gaza Strip is living under, and the closure of crossings... the energy authority is suffering from an acute lack of fuel," a statement by the Hamas government in Gaza said. "If the shortages continue at their current level, the power station faces closure within the next few days," it said, adding this could cause a "humanitarian disaster."

This problem, Cairo officials say, could be solved as part of a package to ease the Israeli siege's impact on Gaza. "But there will be no more smuggling of fuel to Gaza," says a security official.

He adds, "We believe the message has been made clear to Hamas leaders and we believe they cancelled some demonstrations planned in support of Morsi during the coming few days."

Speaking in Gaza on Thursday, Ismail Haniyeh, the elected Hamas prime minister who was removed by the PA but declined to step down, said Hamas and the Palestinians were not picking a fight with Egypt.

"The government is not steering the people towards fighting Egypt or towards aggression against any state, regardless of the unprecedented pressure and circumstances the Palestinian people are under," Haniyeh said.

"With the exception of Morsi’s year in office, relations between Cairo and Hamas have always been shrouded in much scepticism; there is a long history of tension there and it is just being resumed,” says Kadri Saiid, senior strategic analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

The issue is not one of smuggled fuel or lack of commodities, argues Saiid, but rather one of “clashing visions.” Saiid argues that Hamas' vision is one of an "Islamic state" while that of "Egypt" is one of "a nation state."

Security officials argue that things are much simpler: Egyptian authorities, with the exception of the one year of Morsi rule, have always taken exception to political Islam in all its forms.

"Hamas is especially problematic because of its close association with the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and with Iran on the other. Today, vigilance is even higher with a view to the Muslim Brotherhood's attempts to undermine Egyptian security to avenge for the ouster of Morsi."

Egyptian security has accused Palestinian activists of taking part in "Muslim Brotherhood plans to undermine security." For their part, Hamas officials in Gaza complain of Egypt’s attempts to "export" its anti-political Islam views to Gaza to allow for the return of PA rule.

"This is being done in cooperation with the PA people that Cairo is hosting," says one.

According to Saiid, tension between Cairo and Hamas in Gaza will have its ups and downs and will only be permanently removed by a serious resumption of peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis. But Egyptian diplomats are highly sceptical about the chances of a US attempt to resume peace talks between the PA and Israel.

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