Egypt’s diplomacy on Hamas-Fateh and the Rafah crossing

Egypt’s great daily paper Al-Masry Al-Yawm has an important article today describing the intensive efforts Egyptian officials have been making to secure both a (degree of) Hamas-Fateh reconciliation and an agreement with the relevant Palestinian parties– preferably, both of them– regarding the orderly operation of the Rafah crossing point. (Hat-tip Bill. By the way, readers should also note that, in addition to being a great paper, AMAY’s website has an excellently edited English-language version. Kudos to them!)
The authors of the article are Sherif Ibrahim, Fathia al-Dakhakhni and Mahasen el-Senousi.
They write:

    An Egyptian diplomatic source revealed that Egypt is making continuous efforts with Fatah and Hamas about crossing points between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. It also said that the talks recently held in Cairo over this issue were not a failure but just a first step.
    The source affirmed that over the next few days, Cairo would host two delegations from Fatah and Hamas to reach a solution over crossing points and start a dialogue between the two movements…

And then this important information from Hamas spokesperson Taher al-Nounou:

    He affirmed that Hamas accepted European observers at the gate provided that they do not decide when to open and close it, that they live in Arish or Rafah and not go to Israel as they used to. He also stressed on the fact that the Europeans would be back by virtue of a new comprehensive agreement not related to the 2005 one.
    Nounou said that the most important issue of the talks – focused on by Egyptian officials – was Egyptian security in Sinai, pointing out that Egypt opened the Rafah transit border as it refused to let the Palestinian people die of hunger.
    “We told Egyptian officials that the government in Gaza was eager to guarantee Egypt’s security,” he said “and that this security would not be undermined.

The close-to-Hamas Palestinian Information Center (PIC) website carried this report from a press conference that Hamas’s former foreign minister Mahmoud Zahhar held yesterday in Rafah.
It said this:

    The Hamas leader announced that the Palestinian-Egyptian borders will be closed Sunday morning in cooperation between security men of both sides until the procedures aimed at rearranging the movement of entry and exit have been completed, pointing out that the caretaker government headed by premier Ismail Haneyya will do its utmost to control the crossing.
    He explained that the coming days will witness a series of positive developments, describing his visit and the delegation accompanying him to Cairo as highly successful.

And this morning AP is reporting from Rafah that,

    Egyptian troops closed the last breach in Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip Sunday, ending 11 days of free movement for Palestinian residents of the blockaded territory, witnesses and Hamas security officials said.
    Hamas police aided with the closure, drawing pistols and arresting Palestinians who were throwing stones at Egyptian troops along the frontier. It was a dramatic turnabout for Hamas, whose militants had used explosives to bring down the border wall.
    The Egyptian troops were allowing Gazans and Egyptians to cross the border to return to their homes on the other side but prevented any new cross-border movement, according to witnesses and Hamas security officials in the border town of Rafah. The Hamas officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

It is certainly significant that the Hamas people are working with the Egyptian security forces to establish a stable regime along the Gaza-Egypt border— and doing so even though that involves, right now, working with Egypt to reseal the border, even if this complete resealing is only temporary.
Both sides have reason to fear a continuation of the recent chaotic situation there. The Egyptians have been searching for four Palestinians, suspected of planning suicide attacks against some of Egypt’s economically important tourist resorts, who reportedly crossed from Gaza into Sinai on Friday. AP apparently reported that 12 of the 15 heavily armed Palestinians arrested in the north Sinai town of Arish in recent days were members of Hamas. Very evidently, if the Hamas leadership wants to work out a stable agreement with Egypt regarding the border, it will also have to be able to exert its own control effectively over the situation inside Gaza— including, perhaps especially, over the actions of its own members.
It cannot do that easily if the Rafah border remains open to all-comers, including very possibly provocateurs infiltrated by Israel, or Abu Mazen, or who knows who else.
Also, of key importance: For Gaza’s economic opening to and through Egypt to work, as Zahhar and his colleagues want it to, both the Palestinians and the Egyptians need to be able to control– and keep calm– their respective borders with Israel.
Might the next step the Egyptians take, after finding a way to reconcile Abu Mazen and Hamas and a workable formula for opening one or more crossing points on the border, therefore be to help broker a meaningful ceasefire between Gaza and Israel? Why not?
Meanwhile, though Hamas has indeed today been taking actions– including against its own people– in its decision to work with the Egyptians in resealing the border, it is also showing that it retains and will probably continue to develop its capabilities of mounting nonviolent mass actions around the Gaza issue. That same PIC report that told us about Zahhar’s press conference told us this:

    Simultaneously with the return of the Hamas delegation from Cairo, thousands of Palestinian women participated Saturday afternoon in a massive march organized by Hamas’s female supporters at the Rafah crossing, where they chanted slogans calling for lifting the siege and opening the Rafah crossing under Palestinian-Egyptian sovereignty.
    Umm Mohammed Al-Rantisi, one of Hamas’s female leaders, stated that the march aims to send a letter to the PA leadership in Ramallah who are trying to restore the previous conditions at the crossing and bring back the Israeli occupation.

This is one of the many things I love about nonviolent mass action: It involves all members of society, not just the guys! Indeed, to be effective, it really needs to do so.
Back in 2006, I wrote quite a bit about the increasingly important political role being played by Hamas’s well-organized networks of women supporters. That became evident both in the very successful parliamentary election campaign that Hamas mounted in January of that year, and also in some of the new style of nonviolent mass public actions that we saw from the Hamas-organized women later in the year. See, e.g., these two JWN posts from November 2006: 1 and 2.
Too many people in the west– and certainly, nearly the whole of the western MSM– have taken at face value the accusations from Israel and the Bush administration about Hamas (and Hizbullah) being only terrorist organizations. But that view completely misunderstands, or wilfully ignores, the deep roots both organizations have struck among their respective constituencies– roots have been nurtured and sustained through many long years of actions in various fields of nonviolent activity, including a lot of social work and electoral/political organizing. But then, something new happened, it seems to me, when people involved in those kinds of fairly private nonviolent activities take their nonviolent organizing into the mass, open, public sphere and these actions demonstrated that they can have a huge, transformatory effect on the political scene.
One example from Lebanon was the partly organized, partly “spontaneous” mass return of south Lebanese villagers to their villages in the border zone in May 2000. The puppet-run “security zone” that the Israelis had previously maintained there just crumbled overnight.
Another example from Lebanon was the very similar– partly organized, partly “spontaneous”– mass return of south Lebanon’s people to their homes, villages, and towns, on August 14, 2006, the very day the ceasefire went into effect. That human wave of people completely swept away any hopes the Israelis may have had that they and the UN could somehow “prevent” Hizbullah’s people from re-establishing themselves in southern Lebanon– because at that point, nearly all the people who returned were Hizbullah. And, as Ze’ev Schiff (RIP) noted at the time, possession of the battlefield at the time the shooting stops is the very definition of victory. (The IDF had sent in a ground force in those last 60 hours of the war– after the completion of the negotiations for the ceasefire, indeed– precisely with the aim of trying to control as much of the South Lebanon battlefield as possible by the time the ceasefire went into effect. At the purely military level, however, their plans went sorely awry; and on August 13 and 14 the surviving soldiers from their badly mauled invasion force slunk back south across the border in considerable disarray, holding onto no land at all.)
Hizbullah’s women have also, certainly, been seen in quite a number of the party’s public demonstrations and marches, some of them organized into disciplined and slightly militaristic-looking cohorts, and some not.
Hamas women, however, seem to have been developing an even more distinctive and potentially effective role for themselves. They have run in– and in six cases, won– parliamentary elections. And on numerous occasions over the years they have organized all-women demonstrations with a very pointed political intent. Most recently, on January 22, more than 1,000 Hamas-organized women from Gaza swarmed across the Rafah crossing into Egypt in an action designed to publicize the plight of their families as Israel tightened the screws of its siege of the Strip– and also, perhaps, to test the reactions of the Egyptian security forces prior to the big bust-out across the border that was being planned for the following night. (Also worth watching: the second half of this Jazeera/YouTube report on that demo. I would say maybe they need work a bit more on group discipline?)
On that occasion, the Egyptian security forces responded with baton charges and water cannon. But the women’s demonstration, which was widely publicized throughout the Middle East, probably helped many of Gaza’s people to break through any fear they might have had, the next day, regarding the possibility of joining the throngs engaged in the bust-out. So the bust-out itself, when it happened, turned out to be a massive and truly transformative venture.
And now, by mounting another demonstration at the border crossing, it has been the organized women of Hamas, acting nonviolently, who have put the Egyptian authorities on notice that they need to find an agreement that allows the re-opening of the border fence, and soon.
Interesting times. Let’s see what Egyptian diplomacy is able to achieve.

Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan: Bushism in disarray

The past few weeks have not been good ones for the Bush administration’s project of establishing firm, pro-western beach-heads in a broad swathe of western Asia from Gaza to Afghanistan. Afghanistan, which since late 2001 has been ruled by the US-installed and heavily US-dependent Hamid Karzai, is probably the country where the situation seems most dire– for both the pro-Washington political order and the Afghan citizens themselves.
Afghanistan is, by some hard-to-fathom quirk of fate (okay, make that Bushist political necessity), a central part of the mission of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, despite its great distance from the Atlantic ocean. The BBC’s Caroline Wyatt was probably representing the views of many NATO leaders when she wrote yesterday,

    Nato’s members know they cannot afford to fail now. All sides are aware that stabilising Afghanistan is the mission Nato has staked its reputation on.
    That means that the alliance will have to pull together rapidly, for the sake of its own credibility as well as for the future of Afghanistan…

One question: given that Afghanistan is so important to NATO, and given that the Bush administration has pushed so hard with its plan to deploy an ABM system right next to the Russian border in Poland, why would Russia– or, come to that, China– feel any urgent desire to help NATO pull its chestnuts out of the Afghan fire as that fire burns on?
(Russia and China are both a lot closer to Afghanistan than the USA or any other NATO country. They have their own strong interests in not seeing the return of the Taleban order there. But short of that, I expect they are both quite happy to see NATO’s troops getting ground down there– and in Iraq, as well.)
And talking of Iraq… all that cock-a-hoop talk we heard from the Bushites a month or two ago, about how the surge was “working” and life in Iraq has been slowly returning to normal, has been shown to be a flash-in-the-pan. The US’s own casualty rates rose again in January; and yesterday Iraqi suicide bombers performed two more truly gruesome acts against crowded civilian markets.
And in Gaza, the US-Israeli attempt to besiege Gaza’s entire 1.5 million-strong population back into the Stone Age received a notable blow when the Gazans and their Hamas leaders simply walked en masse back to some form of a new, life-saving economic connection with Egypt.
Today, it is ten days since that bust-out occurred. On most of those days, Egyptian officials have sworn that they were “just about” to re-close the border– but guess what, it hasn’t happened yet. Meanwhile, US puppet Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has steadfastly refused to respond to the invitations issued by both Egypt and Hamas that he join a tripartite discussion on how to restore order at the Gaza-Egypt border. Abbas has lost considerable political popularity by maintaining a stance that looks suspiciously like one that seeks to uphold Israel’s ability to strangle Gaza’s economy whenever it pleases.
Hamas’s leaders actually seem to be taking some interesting leaves out of the Israeli playbook. Firstly, they want to proceed with their social reconstruction project in Gaza unilaterally, mirroring the unilateralism (i.e., no negotiations!) policy steadfastly pursued toward Gaza by Sharon and Olmert. Secondly, Hamas is intent on creating “facts on the ground” along the Gaza-Egypt border, to which they hope the diplomats can subsequently find a solution. Hey, creating “facts on the ground” always– until recently– worked well for Israel! So why not for the Palestinians too?
As of today, the Egyptians are promising they’ll get the border re-sealed on Sunday. We’ll see about that. But even if it is re-sealed for some period of time, the Egyptians, Israelis, and everyone else in the region now understands that Hamas could bust across that border into Egypt any time it feels it needs to in the future. So (a) Israel’s plans to maintain a complete siege have lost much of their relevance, and (b) the incentive for the Egyptians to be able to restore some semblance of order and regulation to the border zone will continue to be huge; and for that, clearly, they need to work with Hamas.
Incidentally, this whole Gaza border issue now also puts the EU on the spot. Back in 2005 the EU rashly agreed to act as Israel’s puppet in policing the one single, people-only crossing point between Gaza and Egypt, at Rafah. Basically, the scheme was that EU monitors– who lived in Israel— would sit in the Rafah crossing-point and check the documents of those small numbers of Gaza Palestinians who were allowed by Israel to cross in or out… and they had to transmit all the details of those travelers for prior approval to Israeli officials sitting a mile or two away, inside Israel. And whenever the Israelis wanted to close Rafah, all they needed to do was prevent the EU monitors from traveling to it. Which they have done, almost continuously over the past months.
Now, the Hamas people say (a) they want to have free passage for goods as well as people across the Gaza -Egypt border, and (b) they might agree to have European monitors there– but not if those monitors are beholden in any way to Israel.
How will the EU respond to these demands? Will it continue to kowtow to Washington and Israel? In which case, the Egyptians and Palestinians may well just go ahead and open their own borders. What is the EU’s standing under international law to have any role there, anyway?
A very bizarre arrangement. (Like NATO being in Afghanistan, you might say. More than a whiff of old-style colonialism?)
Anyway, I feel fairly hopeful that the Palestinians and Egyptians can sort out some workable regime for their mutual border. Both nations have a strong interest in the situation not being chaotic. There remains, of course, the not-small challenge of getting Abu Mazen to talk to the Hamas people. (Oh my! Maybe he would risk losing all the hefty amounts of money he and his followers have been getting from Washington and its allies! How could he deal with that blow!) But he’d probably better do it sooner rather than later, if he wants to retain any credibility as a national leader… Um, it’s not as he has done if anything else recently that has brought his people any tangible benefits?
Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan, and what it portends for this strange political animal called “NATO”, has attained new importance on the global scene.
NATO was founded back in the 1940s as the military alliance of the anti-Soviet powers of Western Europe and North America. You might think that after the collapse of not just the Warsaw Pact but also of the Soviet Union itself in the early 1990s, the NATO generals could all have folded up their general’s batons and their flags, and their strategic-planning Power Point presentations and gone home…
You’d be wrong.
NATO was pretty rapidly reborn at that point as, among other things, the main way the US, through its military, worked to hang onto a meaningful role in Europe. That, at a time when the eastward-moving growth of the European Union threatened to make Europe into something that was larger, stronger, non-American, and more self-sufficient. There were also some attempts to rebrand NATO as an alliance of the “democracies”, and in some way an agent of the democratic ideal. It always struck me as very muddle-headed, however– whether in Iraq or anywhere else– to imagine that the projection and use of military power had anything at all to do with being democratic. A commitment to democracy surely requires, above all, a commitment to working hard to resolve one’s political differences, however sharp, through nonviolent means? So the idea that any military alliance could be an agent of democracy, seems distinctly Orwellian.
But now– and this is what the BBC’s Caroline Wyatt was referring to– the over-stretching of military capabilities (and the casualties) that several NATO nations have been experiencing in Afghanistan has sparked off a battle royal among some of the alliance’s leading members. With spring approaching and the Taleban reportedly better organized than ever, Germany’s Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung on Friday brusquely rejected a written plea from US Secdef Robert Gates that Germany send troops to the combat zones in southern Afghanistan. (A strange old world, eh, when an American leader is begging Germany to deploy troops into combat zones outside its own borders?)
NATO members France, Turkey, and Italy have also refused to send their troops to the Afghan combat zones, keeping them instead in provinces less plagued by the Taleban’s recent “surge.” Canada’s government, which has had (and lost) quite a lot of troops in the combat zone, has come under huge domestic pressure and announced it will pull them out in, I believe September.
Britain has had troops in the combat zone all along. But now, a plan to deploy 1,800 Scottish troops there has stirred some pushback from the increasingly independent-minded Scots. And in London, veteran political commentator Simon Jenkins has an anguished piece in the February 3 Sunday Times under the headline Fall back, men, Afghanistan is a nasty war we can never win.
Jenkins writes,

    The American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, flies to Britain this week to meet a crisis entirely of London and Washington’s creation. They have no strategy for the continuing occupation of Afghanistan. They are hanging on for dear life and praying for something to turn up. Britain is repeating the experience of Gordon in Khartoum, of the Dardanelles, Singapore and Crete, of politicians who no longer read history expecting others to die for their dreams of glory.
    Every independent report on the Nato-led operation in Afghanistan cries the same message: watch out, disaster beckons. Last week America’s Afghanistan Study Group, led by generals and diplomats of impeccable credentials, reported on “a weakening international resolve and a growing lack of confidence”. An Atlantic Council report was more curt: “Make no mistake, Nato is not winning in Afghanistan.” The country was in imminent danger of becoming a failed state…
    Nato’s much-vaunted 2006 strategy has not worked…
    Kabul is like Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war.
    It swarms with refugees and corruption while an upper crust of well-heeled contractors, consultants and NGO groupies careers from party to party in bullet-proof Land Cruisers. Spin doctors fighting a daily battle with the truth have resorted to enemy kill-rates to imply victory, General Westmoreland’s ploy in Vietnam.
    This is a far cry from Britain’s 2001 pledges of opium eradication, gender-awareness and civic-governance classes. After 87 deaths and two years of operations in Helmand, the British Army cannot even secure one dam. Aid successes such as a few new schools and roads in the north look ever more tenuous as the country detaches itself from Kabul and tribal elders struggle to make terms with Taliban commanders…

All of Jenkins’ piece is worth reading. It stands in stark contrast to this nonsense from the WaPo’s resident Bush-apologist, Jim Hoagland, whose main “argument” consists of whining that the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan are all Hamid Karzai’s and Pervez Musharraf’s fault.
I have argued for a long time now that invading Iraq was definitely “a bridge too far” for the projection of US military power into west-central Asia. (That is a purely “realist” argument. There were also, of course, weighty moral arguments against the venture, from the get-go.)
But I think what we can see now, as we survey the scene from Gaza, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, is that the major projects of the US-led “west” in the region are all in disarray. Partly, this is because of the arrogance with which the Bush administration pursued all its projects in the region (and partly because of the craven toadying to US power on behalf of too many other members of the “west”.) Partly it is because the Bushites always rejected using the UN’s legitimacy whenever they could, preferring to exercise their own “leadership”, as unfettered as possible, over their own self-assembled “coalition of the willing.” But in good part it has also been because of the west’s excessive reliance on the instruments of brute power, rather than consultation and diplomacy. From this point of view, Israel’s imposition of the crushing, anti-humane siege on all the population of Gaza was just as violent as the US’s use of massive air-launched missiles and bombs in Iraq or Afghanistan. (Israel has, of course, also used a lot of heavy ordnance against Gaza, as well as its attempts at siege.)
… So the Bush administration’s military planners are doubtless working late these days, trying to figure out what to do about Afghanistan, what to do about Iraq. Should they follow “the Dannatt rule” and work rapidly to redeploy forces from Iraq to Afghanistan?
Or the other way around?
Right now, they have no good choices. The Bushist conceit– that the US could maintain its “Uberpower” role in the world through the use of its own military power with the help only of those other powers ready to be be swirled along in its wake, and under Washington’s unquestioned leadership– is being revealed for what it has always been: imperial hubris. When will the non-US powers in the world step in and propose a better way forward? When will the US citizenry itself stand up and scream, “Enough! We need a better way!”
I have not been encouraged, frankly, by the calls that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have made in the past for “an increase in the overall size of the US military”, as providing any kind of an answer to the problems Washington has faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. (I am even less encouraged by the stress the Republican candidates have put on even more militaristic paths forwards.) But at least Barack Obama is saying the US President should talk to– and listen to– its opponents. He has put a lot more emphasis on diplomacy than Hillary; and he certainly doesn’t project the idea– as she does– that he feels he has “something to prove” in being commander-in-chief of the US’s 1.4 million-strong armed forces. He also stressed in Thursday’s debate that he sees the need to provide a clear contrast to the militaristic kinds of policies that the presumed GOP candidate, John McCain, has been advocating.
So Barack Obama may not– okay, he will not– solve all the problems in the US’s relationship with the rest of the world. But he sure looks a lot better than any of the rest of them.
And whoever is president on January 20, 2009, is going to be facing some truly massive challenges.