Some Israelis Want Egypt to Control Strip

I just returned to Cairo after spending 4 days covering Gaza and the fallen border. This story was published few days ago in the Washington Post.

Order Begins to Return To Breached Gaza Border
Some Israelis Want Egypt to Control Strip

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 25, 2008; Page A13

RAFAH, Gaza Strip, Jan. 24 — Egyptian security forces began imposing control over the country’s breached border with the Gaza Strip on Thursday, using clubs and dogs to police the thousands of Gazans still making their way past barricades blown up or toppled by Palestinian gunmen a day earlier.
Some Israeli officials said the breach would allow them to push responsibility for Gaza’s 1.5 million residents onto Egypt, drawing immediate objections from the Egyptian government.

“When Gaza is open to the other side, we lose responsibility for it,” Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said in a statement released by his aides, according to news agencies. “So we want to disconnect from it.

“We want to stop supplying electricity to them, stop supplying them with water and medicine, so it would come from another place,” said Vilnai, a member of Israel’s Labor Party, which has favored negotiations with Palestinians and the emergence of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak distanced himself from Vilnai’s comments, but some Israeli leaders have long imagined Egypt taking control of Gaza, and Jordan becoming responsible for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Israeli officials generally have reacted mildly to the breach, saying they are watching to see how well Egypt regains control of the border.

“Some people are happy that this has happened,” said one Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was relaying the private views of other officials. “Some people believe if they get all their needs from Egypt,” he said of the Palestinians in Gaza, “that would mean we wouldn’t have to do it, and the pressure on Israel from the humanitarian situation would disappear, or at least ease significantly.”

Barak appeared to play down this approach. “I don’t go too far in my interpretation of this,” he told the Associated Press on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Hossam Zaki, a spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, said there was “no possibility” of Egypt taking more responsibility for Gaza. “This might be in the Israeli imagination, but it does not relieve them of the responsibility” under existing border accords and international law.

Severing the Gaza Strip from Israel could further jeopardize Palestinian hopes of uniting the West Bank and Gaza in a single Palestinian state. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement was routed by the armed Hamas movement in Gaza last June, has repeatedly charged that Hamas’s takeover endangered Palestinian statehood.

In Gaza City, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Thursday that one goal of his movement “is to tie our economy to the Arab and Islamic economy and to liberate it from the Israeli monopoly.” However, “the idea of separating Gaza from the West Bank and from Palestine is completely rejected by the Palestinians,” he said.

Abu Zuhri spoke in a city noticeably emptier than just two days ago. A day after fighters blew open the border wall — Hamas did not assert responsibility for the demolition, but Gaza residents say nothing of such magnitude could happen here without Hamas’s knowledge — Egypt’s and Gaza’s economies were starting to meld, at least temporarily.
Following Wednesday’s exuberant rush after the wall fell, order and routine started taking hold Thursday. Money-changers carrying Egyptian pounds appeared in Gaza, ready to serve Gazans eager to shop in Egypt for goods that have become scarce in the strip because of Israeli trade and travel restrictions. Private cars began ferrying shoppers from Gaza City to the border. Small boys stood at the broken concrete border walls with chairs and stepladders, charging one Israeli shekel, the currency most commonly used in the Palestinian territories, to those needing a boost to hoist themselves over the barricade.

At midday, tensions rose for a time on both sides of the border when Egyptian security forces moved in with riot shields, clubs and dogs to cut off the stream of people clambering over the wall into Egypt. Thick crowds massed at the border, anxiously watching the Egyptian guards. But a cheer went up when Palestinians realized the Egyptians were only clearing a traffic jam of donkey carts. “Go!” waiting men screamed, and hundreds stampeded across as one, running and leaping.

Most Gazans sense that their time of liberty is limited. Egypt has closed the border within days or weeks of earlier, smaller breaches.

In the Egyptian city of El Arish, 30 miles from the Gaza border, Egyptian authorities instructed hotels not to accept Gazan guests, but residents opened their guest rooms, basements and back yards to the Palestinians.

Late Wednesday, the first night of the wall’s breach, dozens of young Palestinian men from Gaza gathered in front of the only bar in El Arish to celebrate. The Palestinians zipped their jackets against the cold and cuddled prized cans of beer in gloved hands. “There is not a single drop of beer back in Gaza,” said Mohammed Amer, 28.

“We will spend the night in the open,” Amer said. “But we don’t mind. Spending the night here in the streets is much better than in our own houses back in Gaza.”

Special correspondents Nora Younis in El Arish and Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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