The Middle East Channel

Gaza’s fortunes in a changing Middle East

Last week, Israel closed its principal trade terminal with the 1.8 million people of the Gaza Strip. Karni’s closing hardly merited the attention of an international or indeed a Middle East audience captivated by the popular revolts now convulsing the Arab world. But thanks to this Arab awakening, Israel’s long-planned action poses an important test ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Last week, Israel closed its principal trade terminal with the 1.8 million people of the Gaza Strip. Karni’s closing hardly merited the attention of an international or indeed a Middle East audience captivated by the popular revolts now convulsing the Arab world. But thanks to this Arab awakening, Israel’s long-planned action poses an important test to the newfound power of Arab and particularly Egyptian public opinion to chart a new course in relations with the Palestinians, Hamas, and Israel.

For more than two decades after its conquest of the Gaza Strip and West Bank in June 1967, Israel did all in its power to erase trade and physical barriers between it and the Palestinian territories it was occupying. The territories offered Israel a captive market (literally) and a source of cheap labor. In 1982, then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon even removed the two bored soldiers whose sleepy presence marked the old and seemingly redundant border with Gaza.

The first Intifada against Israeli rule changed everything. As long as Israel was not paying a security cost for its policies of occupation and settlement, the open door trade policy was embraced. But by the early 1990s, Israelis were anxious to be rid of Gaza. "Go to Gaza" became a popular epithet, and, during the Oslo era, Israel began a slow, deliberate policy of estrangement.

Successive Israeli governments initially limited and then banned altogether the employment in Israel of Gazans. These labor restrictions were accompanied by expanding restrictions on trade and joint manufacturing. Security concerns trumped the waning influence of those sectors of a booming and modernizing Israeli economy tied to the old order.

In the 2004-2007 period, Washington, with the international community in tow, wasted countless hours in a misconceived effort to increase trade with the enclave at a time when Israel was long on its way to making Gaza into Albania — a foreign country with which it had no special relationship, interest, or responsibility. Karni, the most modern and efficient trade facility, was the focus of this misguided and frustrating effort to offer Israel technical security solutions to a trade problem that was at its heart political and strategic.

Israel’s divorce from Gaza was final, but the international community was in total denial, and the remedies it offered were all but irrelevant. Israel was determined to cut its trade and access links with Gaza, and no amount of modern scanners or newly minted Palestinian security forces trained by three star General Keith Dayton could prompt a reconciliation.

The Islamic Resistance Movement — Hamas — in contrast to the ruling Fatah party of Yasser Arafat – saw advantage in Israel’s Gaza policy. Hamas leaders wanted to turn Gaza towards Egypt, and by doing so take Gaza out of the shadow of Israel’s heavy-handed control of its land, sea, and air access to the outside world. Its leader, the soon-to-be assassinated Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, welcomed Prime Minister Sharon’s 2004 decision to evacuate Israel’s soldiers and settlers from the region. Hamas’ 2006 victory at the polls, followed by its rout of Fatah forces in June 2007, set the stage for draconian Israeli restrictions on all imports into Gaza. Exports were banned outright, with some recent exceptions to the rule — thus the "siege" on Gaza was born.

The Egypt of President Hosni Mubarak and intelligence czar Omar Suleiman had their own reasons for keeping the border between Gaza and Egypt closed to formal trade. Gaza was created as a ward of Egypt and the international community out of the blood and fire that accompanied Britain’s ignominious retreat from Palestine and Israel’s creation in 1948. A succession of Egyptian leaders viewed the impoverished strip as first and foremost a security problem. Hamas’s control of the area only reinforced Mubarak’s determination to restrict Gaza’s Islamic contagion and to parry Israel’s effort to dump Gaza and its problems — humanitarian and political as well as security — in its lap. Even Mubarak, however, could not ignore the effect of the siege on Gaza’s suffering residents. But rather than open Egypt’s border, he tolerated the creation of a "tunnel economy," which blunted the impact of Israel’s policy and kept Hamas on the ropes.

The MV Mavi Marmara incident in May of last year revealed the depth of international opposition to Gaza’s man-made penury particularly in the Arab world and especially in Egypt. Israel, in the wake of the nine deaths among its passengers, was forced to moderate its trade regime while Mubarak turned a blind eye to trade through the tunnels.

Israel’s decision to close Karni signals that Israel is keeping to its strategic course. It intends to close all trade routes into Gaza except one — at Kerem Shalom, which today is nothing more than a primitive tarmac. It hopes that the continuing pressure for an end to Gaza’s misery will force Egypt to blink first and agree to move goods through Kerem Shalom and not through the direct Gaza-Egypt post at Rafah where Israel’s writ no longer rules. There are growing voices in the country supporting the closure of Kerem Shalom too, sealing Gaza’s border with Israel altogether, and forcing Egypt to manage Gaza and its Islamist regime.

Mubarak and Suleiman saw this process as a threat and a challenge. But to many in Egypt today, Israel’s retreat from Gaza is viewed as an opportunity — as a means to distinguish the new Egypt from its predecessor by ending the siege and answering Arab expectations of Egyptian leadership on an issue that arouses widespread anger in the Arab world.  There is virtually no support in Egyptian civil society for maintaining Egypt’s ban on formal, legal trade with Gaza.

An open border between Gaza and Egypt is viewed as unremarkable by the Egyptian public, particularly one in which the Muslim Brotherhood operates freely, but it continues to be viewed by Egypt’s security establishment as a security disaster. Gaza may be the first of Egypt’s strategic security concepts that will be challenged by the new political order unfolding in Egypt today, but it is certainly not the only one where the interests of the old order and the new one can be expected to clash.

Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. The opinions expressed herein are his own.

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