For Egypt, a stark new dilemma at Gaza border

Armed with an automatic rifle, the Egyptian guard, Ahmed, took shelter from the scorching sun in the ruins of an old border crossing.

Nearby, a Palestinian teenager from the Gaza side of this poor border town emerged from a bushy trail that stretches across the buffer of clumsy barbed wire fences and guard posts. Then the 14-year-old, Salama, sneaked across the porous frontier, hauling a plastic bag.

“They are only jeans—nothing else,” he said. Ahmed, the Egyptian soldier, only shrugged it off: “What can I do?” he asked.

This sand-swept and divided town has for years been a trafficking hub, not only for clothes and other goods but also for weapons smuggled into Gaza to militants fighting Israel.
For years, that set a tone for Egyptian-Israeli tension.

But now, two weeks after Israel ended its 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip, Rafah is proving a stark new dilemma for Egypt.

On the one hand, Egypt fears that extremists from Gaza will spill over into its territory, worsening its own extremist problem in the Sinai desert. On the other, it fears a domestic political backlash if it cracks down too hard on Palestinians in Gaza.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday in Cairo to discuss the issue. Last week, Abbas said the official Gaza-Egypt border, closed by Israel when it pulled out, would reopen only as part of an international agreement.

Egypt, which has suffered major strikes on its tourist resorts in the Sinai, has a large stake in keeping the radical Islamic groups in Gaza, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad under control, and off its side of the border.

Yet, Egypt also is leery of being seen as Gaza’s jailer. Thus, in the first few days after Israel pulled out of Gaza earlier this month, Egyptian officials allowed a stream of illegal crossings in a good-will gesture.

“Gaza will not be turned into a big prison, be sure of that,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abou el-Gheit said on Monday in an interview with the al-Arabiya television station.

Even now, more than two weeks after the Israeli pull-out, a small force of lightly armed Egyptian troops has yet to fully take up its responsibility for policing the 12km border line, which stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the dunes of

the Sinai desert.

That has allowed many poverty-stricken Egyptians and Palestinians, like Salama, the 14-year-old who would not tell a reporter his last name, to venture through gaps in the fence—making money by smuggling goods and sometimes people.

Israel sealed off Gaza’s main border crossing with Egypt as it was withdrawing its troops from the territory, making legal crossings impossible.

Before the pull-out, Egypt agreed to deploy 750 of its poorly trained border guards under an agreement with Israel, to secure its side of the frontier and prevent weapons smuggling. In a separate agreement with the Palestinian Authority, Cairo also agreed to help rebuild the fractured Palestinian security forces.

But as the Israelis left, thousands of joyous Palestinians and Egyptians streamed across the border in celebration of the end of Israeli occupation. Most were shopping for cheaper goods or visiting relatives.

Others brought back to Gaza large quantities of arms.

In one case, Israeli newspapers reported that Qais Obeid, a Hezbollah operative who oversees the Lebanese party’s ties with Palestinian militants traveled, to Rafah to meet leaders of radical groups there.

That infuriated the Israelis, who complained that weapons would end in the hands of radical Palestinians, and expressed concern that frontiers once under their heavy control would now be used to smuggle arms and militants.

To try to resolve the situation, Egypt and the Palestinians have been pushing for a third party, preferably from the European Union, to help in policing the Rafah crossing. But there is little sign the Europeans will agree.

“Yes, we have been dragged into this situation, but we have no other option,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, an expert at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies. “The only other option is chaos.”

He contends the involvement also carries some advantages for Egypt, such as increasing trade with Gaza, gaining a greater security presence in Sinai, improving Egypt’s relations with Israel and the United States and playing a bigger role in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Ahead of Israeli’s withdrawal, Egypt has played a key role as a mediator between the Palestinian Authority and militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In March it helped convince the Palestinian factions to sign a truce declaration.

Samir Ghattass, a political analyst, said it all depends on how things go in Gaza after the Israeli pull-out and whether Palestinian leader Abbas “will be able to put Gaza in order”.

“Otherwise, Egypt will either find itself enmeshed in the continued violence, or leave the Palestinians play havoc with Gaza.

That is an even greater danger,” he said.

Abbas could hardly disagree.

“We are in a deadlock,” he said in Cairo after meeting Mubarak. - Sapa-AP

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