The Gaza break-out
The biggest prison break-out in history is how many Gazans have been describing the events of the past few days – and if it hadn’t been for the turmoil in the world of finance, the resignation of a top British Cabinet minister, and the “oops sorry, I seem to have lost 7 billion dollars of your money” in Paris, we would probably have been paying a lot more attention to that teeming, over-crowded sliver of land between Israel and Egypt.
For nearly a year now, for the vast majority of the 1.5 million people of Gaza, it’s been impossible to leave. To the north and the east, Israel, which has been closed to all but the most essential freight traffic and the most urgent humanitarian cases. To the south, Egypt, which has similarly been closed. To the west, the sea, patrolled round the clock by Israeli naval vessels.
Then, last week, on the border with Egypt, someone blew a huge hole in the fence. The effect was not unlike breaching the Berlin wall. Thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Palestinians streamed across, desperate to buy anything they could lay their hands on: everything from petrol to livestock, from TVs to motor-cycles.
So now what? Israel wants the hole in the fence repaired pronto. It doesn’t like the idea of weapons and ammunition being smuggled into Gaza from Egypt and nor does Washington. (Egypt is the biggest recipient of US aid after Israel. That gives Washington quite a lot of clout in Cairo.)
Egypt isn’t too keen on the border remaining open either: it doesn’t like all those Hamas fighters making common cause with their fellow-Islamists in Egypt. But Hamas? This is the best thing to have happened to Hamas since it seized power in Gaza last summer – which is why many suspect it was Hamas who blew up the fence in the first place.
There’s talk now of Egypt trying to get Hamas and the rival Palestinian faction Fatah to sit down and discuss a plan for the future. Might Hamas be prepared to allow Fatah, in the guise of the Palestinian Authority, to take control of the border crossings? It’s possible, I suppose, but for now, and not for the first time, Hamas seem to have most of the cards.
Israel has legitimate security concerns. Hundreds of home-made “Qassam” rockets are launched from Gaza into Israel – one recently killed a kibbutz volunteer from Ecuador. In the border town of Sderot, people live in constant fear of the rockets, although only a tiny number have done any real damage.
As for the people of Gaza, they are in a state of constant anger and despair. Dozens have been killed in recent weeks, most of them fighters. But Israeli air attacks sometimes kill civilians as well as fighters, and Israel’s decision to cut off fuel supplies briefly, thus starving Gazans of any electricity, seems to have been the final straw.
Some Israeli officials have been suggesting that Israel would like to give up any responsibility for Gaza, now that its troops and settlers are long gone – but my understanding is that under international law Israel is still regarded as the “occupying power” because it retains control over Gaza's airspace and coastline, and controls the flow of goods, including fuel and energy supplies, in and out of the territory. That means it has continuing responsibilities, whether it wants them or not.
It’s going to take some nimble diplomacy to resolve all this … and my hunch is it won’t be quick. Egypt really doesn’t want to be seen locking the people of Gaza back into their prison – or even worse, opening fire on them. But neither the US nor Israel will want things to stay as they are. Headaches all round.