Israel will be making a mistake if it lets the Egyptian initiative
slip away. The full details of the plan have not been made public, but its
main points are known: The Egyptians will arrange a hudna (cease-fire) among
all Palestinian organizations, they will send experts to the Gaza Strip to
organize and rehabilitate the Palestinian security forces, and the
Palestinians will assume responsibility in Gaza after the settlements are
dismantled and the Israel Defence Forces withdraw.
The first problem the Egyptians have is not actually with Israel, but
rather with the Palestinians. The Egyptians have tried to open discussions
with the leadership of Hamas, first of all to stop the firing of Qassam
rockets. Hamas said no. The Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu-Zahari,
announced at the end of last week: "The Hamas movement rejects any
initiative, Palestinian or Arab, to stop firing Qassam rockets on Israeli
communities and settlements."
The Palestinian initiative to which he referred was the demand by the
residents of the town of Beit Hanun to stop firing the rockets because IDF
operations in the area, under way for some 10 days, were causing them severe
damage. The residents of Beit Hanun brought their case before the Supreme
Committee of the National and the Islamic Forces, but its members were
unable to arrive at a decision.
Those firing the rockets are apparently heartened by the fact that they
have managed to increase their range and to find hiding places from which to
fire them; consequently, the IDF has had to expand its activities as far as
the outskirts of the Jabalya refugee camp. But what will happen afterward?
How far can they be pursued, how much agricultural land can be obliterated,
how many houses can be destroyed in Gaza?
There is thus enough reason for it to be in Israel's primary interest to
bring a government of law and order to Gaza - before withdrawal and
thereafter. Egyptian involvement in the Strip is the only way to achieve
this. The government of Israel is willing in principle to accept Egyptian
assistance: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon even welcomed it. But when the
Egyptians presented their list of demands from Israel, it turned out that
the gap between the positions of the two countries was great.
The Egyptians want Israel's withdrawal to be complete (land, sea, and
air), although a compromise will probably be made on this point. The
Egyptians will be willing, of course, to be more flexible with regard to
their demand to allow "safe passage" between the West Bank and Gaza, and
also with regard to freedom of movement for Yasser Arafat.
They will not, however, give up on their demand that after withdrawal,
Israel will cease all military operations in Gaza. The Palestinian foreign
minister, Nabil Shaath, who visited Cairo last weekend, discovered that on
this issue, the Egyptians will not budge. All the latest reports state that
the Egyptian authorities are not willing under any circumstances for their
forces to risk danger by becoming involved in fire fights in Gaza. It has
been 30 years since Egyptian and Israeli soldiers last shot at each other,
and the Egyptians do not want to take a chance that this will occur again,
Another stumbling block that Sharon has placed before the Egyptians is
his demand that Egypt not become an intermediary between Israel and the
Palestinian Authority. The principle of unilaterality in Sharon's plan lost
its significance when the Egyptians, European countries and the U.S. became
involved. The only thing left of it is the boycott of the PA, which the
prime minister strives obsessively to preserve. It is a boycott reminiscent
of the days when Israeli law prohibited meetings with PLO officials. Sharon
seems willing to turn the world upside down, as long as there is no
appearance of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
If the government of Israel insists on this, the involvement of Egypt in
the Gaza Strip will probably be of little value. In the end, the
Palestinians will control Gaza - not the Egyptians. The whole significance
of the Egyptian initiative is about encouraging the withdrawal from Gaza,
which may help resuscitate negotiations between the Israelis and the