25 January 2009
As the Israeli war on Gaza claimed more lives and inflicted more damage by the day, public outrage rose against the Israeli onslaught. Arab voices condemned the performance of Egypt, and demonstrations were held in front of Egyptian embassies to protest the Egyptian reluctance to open the Rafah border crossing. As for Iran and Hizbullah, they added fuel to the fire against Egypt. Watani talked on the subject to Emad Gad, expert with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, and editor-in-chief of the quarterly Israeli Selections published by Al-Ahram.
Who bears responsibility for the Gaza war, Hamas or Israel?
The story started with the relaxation of hostilities reached between Israel and Palestinian factions on 19 June 2008. It stipulated a ceasefire to be followed by gradual lifting of the siege. Within the six-months-long relaxation period, there were violations by both parties. Israel said Hamas had used the truce to smuggle weapons and explosives to the Strip, while Hamas said Israel remained adamant not to lift the siege or open crossing points with Gaza. A few hours following the expiration, Hamas started firing rockets at towns in southern Israel. The Israeli leadership seized the opportunity and launched a wide-scale offensive on the Strip. There were a host of reasons for that. They wished to restore some of the pride the Israeli army lost in its war on Lebanon in 2006. The Israeli parliamentary elections to be held in February drove each party to seek to boost its opportunities. Hence the operation Cast Lead.
Did Israel plan the attack to undermine Hamas or was the strike haphazard?
Israelis do nothing haphazardly and are adept at seizing opportunities. They exercised self-restraint for eight days while Hamas fired rockets at Israel, all the while reiterating that Hamas should stop lobbing rockets on Israeli towns. Then they started their offensive and told the world that this war was defensive. Hamas leaders did not imagine that Israel would retaliate. The Palestinian people paid for these miscalculations.
Does Israel aim to overthrow Hamas?
Absolutely not. Israel does not aim to topple Hamas, but seeks to undermine its military weight. The presence of Hamas in the Gaza Strip is in Israel’s interests since it preserves the Palestinian division.
As a long-term objective, Israel seeks to refer the problem of Gaza to Egypt. Many Palestinians believe that Sinai is part of Palestine. This explains why Palestinians destroyed parts of the Palestinian fence with Egypt last year and raised the Palestinian flags on some Egyptian buildings. It also explains why Egypt is so reluctant to open the Rafah border crossing.
Israel believes that Hamas is stupid enough to fulfil the Israeli strategy by shifting the responsibility of the Strip to Egypt and finding a home for Gazans in Sinai, while parts of the West Bank will be affiliated with Jordan. Then Israel will finish with the Palestinian problem once and for all.
So, have the Israelis succeeded in exploiting Hamas to realise their own objectives?
Yes, Hamas now focuses on Egypt more than Israel. It collaborates with the Syrian Iranian axis to tarnish Egypt’s image. It rejected the Egyptian initiatives and accused Egypt of seeking to contain the resistance. Hamas is useful for Israel since it poses a challenge to both Palestinian and Arab unity.
Hamas’s military capabilities have been undermined due to the Israeli offensive. More importantly, the Palestinian civilians are now paying the price of electing Hamas. On the contrary, those who live in the West Bank, and despite being subject to the occupation, lead a peaceful life.
Did Israel benefit from the current change in administration in the United States?
Some observers believe that Israel sought to finish off its attack before 20 January when Obama takes office. Hamas, on its part, wished to use the large number of civilian casualties to gain the support of global public opinion, which could affect the performance of Obama on the question.
The head of Hamas politburo Khaled Mashaal announced that Israel failed to meet its target and said the movement has won.
This is mere propaganda. Mashaal seeks to paint a rosy picture though facts on the ground are totally different and Hamas has suffered huge losses. Where were the leaders of Hamas while more than 1000 civilians were being killed?
Did the strikes on houses and residences signify a failure on the part of the Israeli army to know the whereabouts of Hamas’s leaders and weapons?
I do not think so. But Hamas, similar to Hizbullah, installs launching pads in residential areas. Israel targeted a mosque lately because a launching pad was fixed there, not because Israel is waging a war against Islam.
Egypt is accused of collusion with Israel, particularly as the Israeli secretary of state visited Egypt two days before the attack?
There was no relation between the visit and the strike. Simply, after the expiration of the truce, Egypt tried to persuade Hamas to renew it. When the movement rejected, Egypt realised that Israel was going to launch a large-scale offensive. President Mubarak invited Livni to Egypt to persuade her to delay the offensive, but she refused. Claims about Egyptian complicity with the Israelis are spread by Syria, Iran and Qatar, none of whom has given any real help to the Palestinians.
Do you think that Venezuela’s dismissal of the Israeli ambassador embarrassed Egypt?
Israel did not do any harm to Egypt to take such a step. Egypt worked to find a way out of this plight and Israel has cooperated.
How do you evaluate the coverage of Egyptian media?
The problem is that the Egyptian media adopts the conspiracy theory, and the same could be said about school curricula and religious discourse, which conceive the world as antagonistic to us. Surprisingly enough, private Egyptian satellite channels were more efficient in terms of defending the Egyptian stance than State TV. The fact that the Egyptian Parliament has become more concerned with Gaza than with domestic issues reveals the magnitude of the dilemma. The Egyptian media is eventually committing a crime against Egypt.
Why does Iran agitate against Egypt?
Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Egypt has been the stumbling block preventing Iran from enjoying a hegemonic regional power and exporting the revolution to Arab countries. In this context, Iran seeks to incite the Egyptian public to rise against the regime and at the same time is working to deepen the rift between Palestinians. It managed to gain the support of Syria, Sudan, Qatar and Yemen. But it has never made any sacrifice for the Palestinian cause.
How do you evaluate the calls by Hassan Nasrallah for the Egyptian public and army to rise up against the regime?
Hizbullah is an Iranian product and stages war by proxy in Iran’s interest. It was clear that the 2006 war was an Iranian rather than a Lebanese war. However, the Egyptian public glorifies Nasrallah because he fought Israel. Therefore he thought of himself as the leader of the region, daring to call upon the Egyptian public to rise against the ruler. He does not understand the psychology of the Egyptians who might criticise the regime but never accept such sort of agitation.
Why did not Hizbullah engage in the battle? Has it become weak?
No, but Iran did not give it the order to fight. If Iran tells it to fire rocket against Israel, it will not hesitate. However, UNSC resolution pushed Hizbullah 40km away from the borders with Israel and led to the introduction of peacekeeping forces on the borders. When four rockets were fired from South Lebanon, Hizbullah denied any responsibility.
Do you think Egypt is currently capable of guarding the Rafah crossing?
Egypt has nothing to do with the 2005 border agreement. It was signed by Israel and the EU and mandated the Palestinian Authority forces to monitor the borders along with EU monitors. But after Hamas took over the Strip in June 2007, EU monitors withdrew. As for Egypt, it opens the crossing for humanitarian causes.
Why does Israel blame Egypt for the tunnels used to smuggle weapons into Gaza?
According to the 1979 Peace Treaty signed between Egypt and Israel, Egypt is authorised to deploy 400 policemen over the 14km borders with Gaza. The number was raised to 750. This is hardly enough and the burden is too heavy for Egypt to shoulder. The tunnels harm Egypt since they are used to smuggle drugs and are, moreover, not the prime source of arms, which Hamas gets in different ways including Israeli arm dealers themselves. There are too many tunnels for Egypt to control with 750 policemen.
The US is now helping Egypt destroy the tunnels. As for the killing of Egyptian officers or soldiers by Israeli bullets, it happens all the time across borders between different countries. And Israel apologised when this happened. The Egyptian diplomacy is wise enough not to make a fuss out of such incidents.
Do you expect the Israeli strike will undermine the influence of Islamic currents in the Arab world?
We all know that the Muslim Brotherhood is the Egyptian version of Hamas. It has become clear that when Islamists rule, the outcome is destruction and bloodshed. I expect the Israeli offensive will weaken radical Islamic movements in the region. On the other hand, policies adopted by Hamas indicate that when Islamists ascend to power, they wreak havoc in societies they rule. The bloody showdown between Fatah and Hamas is indicative and conveys a message to Arab people of the threat posed by Islamic factions and groups. I believe that Hamas seeks to establish an Islamic emirate in Gaza and weaken the camp of Arab moderates in the region. As for the Brotherhood, it seeks to use the events to agitate the public against the regime.
How do you explain the passivity of the Egyptian foreign minister vis-à-vis the campaign against Egypt?
I think that the Egyptian State is wise enough not to get dragged in a war of words. As I said before, the media proved inefficient in defending the Egyptian formal policy. As for the campaign against Egypt, it signifies helplessness on the part of the Arab regimes to the extent that Egypt is held responsible for all the regions’ calamities.
Do you trace a setback in terms of the Egyptian role in the region?
Yes. But this happens to all nations, including the US whose power is now diminishing while China is on the rise.
Do you agree with those calling to use the oil weapon against Israel? What about the recent court ruling in Egypt to freeze Egypt’s gas exports to Israel?
Saudi Arabia was the first to oppose the call to use oil as a weapon. Gulf States have their own development plans and cannot risk halting gas exports. As for the recent ruling, it has nothing to do with politics since it was based upon economic and procedural grounds, including low prices and the absence of parliamentary approval.
How can you explain Israel’s acceptance of the Egyptian initiative and Hamas’s rejection of it?
The initiative suggested an immediate ceasefire and resumption of Palestinian Israeli peace talks. It also offered guarantees to Israeli security and stipulated the opening of crossing points. The Israelis accepted the initiative because they are far-sighted. They knew Hamas would dismiss it, and then they would be viewed as peace seekers. As for Hamas, it belittled the initiative because it came from Egypt. Hamas also is against the presence of foreign troops in the Strip. As I said before, Hamas is working in accordance with an Iranian agenda.
Do you think Israel will reoccupy the Gaza Strip? How do you see the future?
Israel does not want to reoccupy the Strip because it does not wish to endanger the lives of Israeli soldiers, but it could deploy some of its troops at certain points. As for the future, it will have much to do with the approach taken by the Obama administration vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the new Israeli Cabinet following the February elections.