The Gazan Jail-Bust and Middle East Dynamics

While we were all glued to CSPAN on the FISA fight yesterday, Hamas engineered a massive jail-break, breaking down the wall between Gaza and Egypt so Palestinians who have been under siege could go into Egypt to get food and supplies. The jail-break may have redefined the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics. While the jail-break had obviously been planned for some time, it occurred at a time when Israel was intensifying the Gaza siege, even while Bush had just traipsed around the Middle East claiming he was serious about seeking peace between Israel and Palestine. While it’s still early, the jail-break has the potential of dramatically altering dynamics in the Middle East.

As Jonathan Edelstein notes, the siege was really more of a joint Israeli-Egyptian siege.

I’ll close by questioning received wisdom, noting a legal paradigm shift, and indulging in some wild speculation.

Questioning received wisdom: I think we’ve been wrong all along in describing the siege of Gaza as an Israeli siege. In fact, ever since Israel left the Philadelphi route, it’s been an Israeli-Egyptian siege, and Egypt has maintained its end for its own reasons. Hamas correctly perceived Egypt as the military and political weak link, and chose to break the siege at the Egyptian border. I’ve actually wondered why it took so long; there have been partial breaches of the wall before, and I remember thinking at the time that Hamas would gain an advantage by widening them. Maybe it wasn’t yet ready, but I think it’s now very clear that they and Israel were never the only players.

Adelstein wonders whether this jailbust might lead to increasing influence from Hamas in Egypt, something Egypt can ill afford.

As for Bob Spencer’s speculation that Gaza might “become some sort of loosely associated part of Egypt,” I wonder if it might end up more the other way. I did some speculating of my own about the Gaza-Sinai relationship in late 2005, at the time the Rafah crossing reopened and before the rocket-closure-raid cycle started developing its own logic. The key points were that Gaza has six times the population of North Sinai governorate, that there was more money in Gaza than in that part of Egypt, that Egyptian security control in that region was tenuous and that the ports of al-Arish and Port Said had the potential to become a key Palestinian import-export route. All these, except possibly the second, remain true, and given that it will be a political impossibility for Mubarak to re-close the border (although he has built walls against his own Bedouin citizens), Sinai al-Shamaliyya might end up becoming a de facto Palestinian economic appendage. Interesting times.

Joel Beinin, writing at Juan Cole’s place, explains the threats to Egypt (and Israel and the Palestinian Authority) at more length.

The Egyptian press reported that, several days before the wall was blown up, the General Guide of the Muslim Brothers, the largest opposition force in Egypt, spoke by telephone to Khaled Mash’al, the head of the Political Bureau of Hamas who resides in Damascus. Hamas emerged from the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brothers; and there is a high likelihood that the actions of the two organizations were coordinated. Following this consultation, the Brothers began to organize demonstrations throughout Egypt beginning on Friday, Jan. 18. The number of its supporters in the street gradually increased, culminating on Wednesday. Jan. 23. That morning, thousands of Egyptian security forces surrounded Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo and arrested hundreds (according to some reports thousands) of people who were attempting to demonstrate in solidarity with the people of Gaza. The demonstration was supported by both the Muslim Brothers and secular nationalists.

Meanwhile, at Rafah, Egyptian security forces initially tried to stop the Palestinians from streaming across the border. But as the numbers swelled to tens of thousands, the government had no choice but to acquiesce. President Hosni Mubarak told journalists that he had instructed the security forces to: “Let them come in to eat and buy food” and return “as long as they are not carrying weapons.”

What are the implications of these developments?

It appears that the Annapolis summit and the sham “peace process” it was supposed to have reinvigorated are dead — killed by tens of thousands of unarmed Palestinians crossing the boarder into Egypt to meet their basic human needs. Shortly before President George W. Bush’s visit to the Middle East, Israel began an expanded campaign of pressure on the Gaza Strip, including an escalation in targeted assassinations. Hamas has sent several signals that it was prepared for an informal ceasefire with Israel. But the political perspective articulated at Annapolis and its aftermath requires that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cooperate with Israel in crushing Hamas rather than try to restore Palestinian national unity. Egypt’s task in this drama is to stand silently by.


The limited capacity of the Egyptian government to acquiesce to this program has been exposed. The Mubarak regime would like very much to see Hamas crushed, since it is an ally of the Muslim Brothers, its most substantial domestic opposition force. But the Palestinian cause is too popular and emotional an issue in Egypt for Mubarak to appear to be assisting Israel in starving the people of Gaza. Moreover, some of the demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza also raised slogans against the drastic rise in the price of food in recent months and against Husni Mubarak himself. Opposition demonstrations linking the Palestine cause with domestic economic issues and autocracy have the potential to threaten a regime whose legitimacy is already minimal.

Palestine, Israel, and Egypt after the fall of the Gaza wall are more unstable than before. It is desirable, but alas unlikely, that this instability will bring the leaderships to their senses and impel them to negotiate a just peace for the benefit of all. But it is more likely that Olmert, Abbas, and Mubarak — all weak and discredited leaders — will seek to hold onto power by clinging to the United States, which has a long record of opposing Palestinian-Israeli peace. The people of the Gaza Strip have taken their survival into their own hands and have shown that the power of ordinary people is more likely to shape the future than polished diplomatic formulas.

Helena Cobban links to a Haaretz column that further explains how the jailbreak will affect Israel.

While hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are streaming into Egyptian Rafah and Hosni Mubarak is having trouble reestablishing the border, while Hamas has succeeded in ending the siege of Gaza via a well-planned operation and simultaneously won the sympathy of the world, which has forgotten the rain of Qassam rockets on Sderot, Israel is entrenching itself in positions that look outdated. The prime minister speaks about the need to continue the closure on Gaza, and the cabinet voices its “disappointment” with Egypt – as if there were ever any chance that the Egyptians would work to protect Israeli interests along the Philadelphi route [i.e., the 7-mile border between Gaza and Egypt] instead of thinking first of all of their own interests. The failure of the siege of Gaza, which the government declared only a week ago to be “bearing fruit,” and especially the fear that this failure will lead to a conflict with Egypt, requires the government to pull itself together and prove that it has been graced with the ability to solve crises and to lead, not merely to offer endless excuses for its leadership during previous crises.

In short, the Gaza jail-break has exposed Egypt’s fragile position as an ally of the US and its limited ability to cooperate with Israel. And that may well change the assumptions that the US and Israel have made regarding the peace process.

Helena Cobban, who has been following it closely, indirectly blames Bush’s bumbling for the timing of the jail-bust.

I just want to add to all my previous posts here on the Gaza Palestinians’ bust-out of earlier today that the political ground for this intriguing new move was sown in good part by President Bush’s amazingly maladroit trip around the Middle East over the past two weeks.

During the trip, Bush underlined again and again his intense concern for Israelis, their security, and their every last little whim. But he turned a notably deaf ear to the pleas he heard from all his most ardent Arab friends that he do something to demonstrate some concern for the hardships being suffered by the Palestinians and some real resolve to stop, for example, Israel’s continued illegal encroachments on Palestinian land and the harsh– and also illegal– collective punishments it has been imposing on the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank for many years now.


Is it in any wonder that in these circumstances Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak evidently feels he can do nothing to intervene to re-close the wall between Gaza and Egypt, and no other Arab leaders are prepared to step forward to help to stem the tide of Hamas’s growing power?

Basically, Bush set up the opportunity for Hamas to break through the wall while retaining the sympathies of the international community.

Under pressure from Israel and the US, Egypt is currently trying to close the border again. Even if they succeed, they appear to be replacing concrete with barbed wire. And even still, it’s not clear they’ll succeed.

Egypt moved to restore its border with Gaza on Friday, stationing border guards and riot police to try to block Palestinians from entering, but Palestinians used a bulldozer to knock down another portion of the wall, originally built by Israel just inside Gaza, to continue their shopping spree.

Whether or not Egypt does restore the wall, Gaza has already exposed Egypt’s fragile position.

I noted last week that the Saudis appear less willing to play the economic role we’ve long relied on them to play. Hamas sure seems intent on convincing Egypt to stop playing the strategic role we’ve relied on them to play.

31 replies
  1. DeadLast says:

    From a facsist sociological experiment perspective, we are getting some pretty good data on how much oppression a group of people can take when they are confined geographically without free movement.

    Gaza is what would result if we built a fence around Tijuana and didn’t allow trade or movement of people. Another, although fictional example, is the Children of Men. The prison city of Bexhill is what I would imagine Gaza to be like (and I have been to Egypt and the West Bank, just not Gaza).

  2. alank says:

    Egypt has been unsympathetic with the plight of the Palestinians ever since the U.S. bought that country off. Another bill Americans pay to prolong the misery of a people.

  3. radiofreewill says:

    I think you are right on, again – this could be a game changer!

    The Palestinians have just recently raked-in $7.5B in global good-will, that the Egyptians might be only-too-willing to ‘do deals’ on.

    Before you know it, there’ll be paved roads running to the Ports lined with strip malls and bedroom communities for the ‘Old City.’

    Very short-sighted by Israel when the conventional wisdom (CW) is to “keep your enemies closer than even your friends.”

    The Genie is out of the bottle now – the Palestinians are Gaining Power.

  4. Hugh says:

    The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has been festering for some time. I have an entry in my scandals list 191 on it.

    Israel has tried to pressure Hamas since the group won election in January 2006.

    In May 2007, Fatah inserted gunmen in Gaza with Israeli and American blessing (and with a promise of American aid) precipitating a short Palestinian civil war which ended abruptly in June 2007 when Hamas expelled the Fatah gunmen from Gaza.

    Since then Israel has continued Gaza’s physical isolation, again with the Bush Administration’s acquiescence. What is important to remember is that Israel’s policy toward Gaza is one of collective punishment. This is specifically outlawed by the 4th Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians in armed conflicts.

    No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.

    (Part III, Sec. 1, Art. 33)

    A protected person is a person who finds him or herself in the hands of an Occupying power as the result of an armed conflict. Israel is a signatory of the Convention.

    Gazans streaming across the Egyptian border is a powerful image. It is testimony not only to the failure of Israel’s occupation policies but to their moral bankruptcy.

  5. skdadl says:

    It is a powerful image, and Gaza-Sinai makes geographical/economic sense … in the absence of any sense coming from any other direction. This is a break-out for Hamas in more ways than one. Thanks very much for those thoughtful and informed comments, EW.

  6. Neil says:

    Programming note:

    C-SPAN 1 4PM EST
    Interview with First Lady Barbara Bush
    RE: National Archives & Records Admin.

    Barbara Bush , United States
    Allen Weinstein , National Archives & Records Admin.

  7. Scarecrow says:

    Strking parallels with the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Tear down this wall,” Reagan proclaimed. And when it fell, those imprisoned flooded across and the world cheered.

    Neocon/Reaganaught heads are exploding today, or in denial about the similarities. “Eich ben ein . . . Palestinian?”

  8. FrankProbst says:

    Here’s something I don’t understand: This whole episode has been portrayed in the press as Gazans crossing over to Egypt to buy food. The unspoken implication is that everyone is going to go back to Gaza once they’re done with their grocery shopping. Isn’t it more likely that a large number of people will simply stay in Egypt? It’s clear that both Israel and Egypt want the wall resealed, presumably so they can get back to cutting off supplies. So wouldn’t you be a lot better off if you just stayed on the other side of the wall?

    • brendanx says:

      My question is how the Israelis plan to liquidate the Gaza ghetto in the end.

      Also, maybe it’s pessimism and paranoia, but I think of Richard Perle’s “Mubarak? We can do better than Mubarak” when I see this instability on the Egyptian border.

  9. emptywheel says:

    This is interesting:

    Israel is considering the possibility of granting the request of Mr. Abbas and the Ramallah-based prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to let the Palestinian Authority take control of the border crossings between Israel and Gaza, allowing them to reopen.

    An attempt to reclaim some power for Abbas? File it under “too little, too late.”

    • FrankProbst says:

      I don’t understand that, either. Abbas and the PA have little credibility in Gaza. I don’t think anyone in Gaza is going to be terribly happy about them running their borders.

      • emptywheel says:

        Well, and if Hamas can just blow a wall out any time someone needs to shop in Egypt, why go through Israel. It’s like Israel wants to force gaza back into being economically tied to Israel, and now that an alternative exists, they’re going to try to recreate their captive (in all sense of the word) market.

      • Hugh says:

        I don’t understand that, either. Abbas and the PA have little credibility in Gaza. I don’t think anyone in Gaza is going to be terribly happy about them running their borders.

        It’s an attempt to re-introduce Fatah, and more specifically Fatah gunmen, into Gaza.

  10. oldtree says:

    I wonder how this affects those that sponsor the weapons use? The saud always promised aid to the Palestinians, but the percentage of aid going to the people was either nebulous or neglible. The Palestinians may now have land of their own. Egypt and Israel never really seemed to want it, even though they fight over it periodically as a buffer.
    This will be interesting. Perhaps a state will finally be granted and a peace of sorts can break out. Give the folks a chance to live and live in peace. Maybe the percentage of them going into the business of frustration will decline.

  11. skdadl says:

    It’s the two ports that are most interesting. Two ports for Gaza. That is real vision. And it’s a vision that must have a lot of people hopping tonight.

  12. jdmckay says:

    Edelstein continues from your link…

    And now the wild speculation: On the hopeful side, this is a potential chance for Gaza to get its act together. The Palestinians have, to put it bluntly, choked on Gaza several times, and neither the PNA nor Hamas has been able to control the place sufficiently to govern it or to institute an effective cease-fire. Israel has been partly responsible for this state of affairs but so has Palestinian infighting and the prevalence of splinter militias. If Hamas can re-establish an economy in Gaza and use the popularity that it has surely gained from this move to consolidate its authority, then it might be able to work out a mutual cease-fire on the Israeli border, position itself as a responsible diplomatic player, and maybe even reduce the perceived risk of Gaza by enough to attract foreign investment. This would in turn increase the pressure on both Israel and Fatah to move toward ending the occupation in the West Bank, because otherwise Hamas would be able to point to its success in Gaza as the only viable alternative.

    Only thing I agree w/on that is the “wild speculation” part. Like predicting how many branches an oak tree will have before the seed sprouts. He’s getting way ahead of himself IMO.

    As long as W’s still around, don’t know how anyone could think he’ll abandon policy to kill Hamas by any means possible.

    This “event” seems to me like a highly pressurized environment poked a hole in containment’s area of least resistance, and did so w/least damage imaginable. Euro press is applauding the effort nearly unanimously.

    I’m continuously left wondering what entire Palestine areas would be like if Israel had instead built schools, hospitals and general services… at least made an effort at some type of good will.

    • radiofreewill says:

      jdmckay – the bulk of the $7.5B in aid for the Palestinians came from Europe – after the Annapolis meeting.

      Personally, I think the Europeans gave Bush, and the Israelis, too, some Pay-Back for the Sub-prime Securitization Fraud.

      Now, millions and millions of Muslims from around the world will conduct Pilgrimages every year from the Ports via The Gaza Road to the Holy City.

      The Age Old advice to Kings who wish to Decrease Violence in their Kingdoms has always been: “Give the People Jobs and Opportunity.”

      • jdmckay says:

        Personally, I think the Europeans gave Bush, and the Israelis, too, some Pay-Back for the Sub-prime Securitization Fraud.

        I don’t think w. European’s “pay back” for Bush in any way limited to “sub prime” mess. On thing about ‘em re: Palestine: they are much better informed than we (US) are, and not just Palestinian situation. Actually, I think they’re more concerned w/“rougue” (cough) SG trader’s $7b “oops” right now than sub-prime stuff.

        I’ve been paying close attention to euro $$ journals for some time (I moved a lot of $$ >> Euros a few years ago), and most of it completely unreported here. But they’ve been bracing for this for some time now… and not just subprime bonds: any # of events, plausible but not inevitable, which could pull US economy into “D” territory. That’s been my view for a while…

        Talking about sub-prime, I stumbled across this quote from Bernanke in a 10/05 WP article:

        Ben S. Bernanke does not think the national housing boom is a bubble that is about to burst, he indicated to Congress last week, just a few days before President Bush nominated him to become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve.
        “House prices are unlikely to continue rising at current rates,” said Bernanke, who served on the Fed board from 2002 until June. However, he added, “a moderate cooling in the housing market, should one occur, would not be inconsistent with the economy continuing to grow at or near its potential next year.”

        Well, good to know he’s gotten right on top of things…

        • radiofreewill says:

          jdmckay – Thanks for that excellent reply!

          If I were Europe, I would have considered the Sub-prime Securitization Fraud a real Trust breaker.

          As I understand what happened, and I don’t understand much really, the ‘risk’ on these Securities was assessed by the same guys that were making a profit on their sale.

          The ‘in house’ risk assessors seemingly had every incentive to assess the risk ‘lower’ than it was, because once the tranches went out, the unrecognized risk-liability was laundered out with them – everyone on the front end of the deal pocketed their profits and walked away, while the tranche-buyers (a lot of them in Europe) got left holding the bag.

          The value of the dollar – under Bush – as the world standard reserve currency, in my humble opinion, has suffered as badly as our International Reputation as Peacebrokers.

          We invaded Iraq on Lies. We sold dollar-backed securities with unacknowledged time-bomb liabilities.

          Bush’s Character Failing is destroying everything about America that depends on Integrity for its Value.

          • jdmckay says:

            As I understand what happened, and I don’t understand much really, the ‘risk’ on these Securities was assessed by the same guys that were making a profit on their sale.

            Yep… the good o’le tried and true soak -em -’till-every-last-$$-is-gone Enron model.

            “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s
            good enough for us.”

            – Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson (1875-1961),
            Governor of Texas (1925-1927, 1933-1935)

            From speech arguing against foreign language teaching

  13. Bushie says:

    Excellent blog about Gaza and Hamas not covered by MSM (again). I just Googled News “Gaza” and found this article from TheTrumpet.Com (Philadelphia Church of God?)…..4.3002.0.0 stating Iran’s Ahmadinejad called Mubarak (first time ever). Both agreed to support Hamas! GMG, what next?

  14. emptywheel says:

    Fascinating. Particularly considering that Abdullah has been getting closer to Amhedinejad, and that the Saudis told us to fuck off with our hopes for cheaper gas prices.

    • Bushie says:

      Yep, wherever Arbusto dips his wick in the Middle East, he really pisses people off. He could care less about fuel prices with his investment portfolio and his family wealth.

    • phred says:

      Perhaps BushCo’s ultimate gift to the ME is a real desire for self-determination all the way around. Is that a resounding “Go Cheney Yourselves” echoing back to us from the Saudis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and Iranians we hear?

  15. Minnesotachuck says:

    The “gift” that keeps on giving. The confirmations that the damage done by the Bushaviks to US Strategic interests can never be underestimated just keep rolling in, one after another.

  16. wcsally says:

    Truthfully if it wasn’t so tragic at the same time, it would be funny.

    On the other hand, maybe all the Iraqi Insurgents will break out of Iraq and go over to Iran. Well, maybe.

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