"There will be no need for smuggling if crossings are open. And there will be no need for weapons if the occupation ends. That would be a much simpler way for the international community to approach the problem."

January 30, 2009

In News

Rafah at centre of talks

01.29.2009 | The National
By Omar Karmi, Foreign Correspondent

RAFAH, gaza strip // It does not look like much, but the pummelled strip of land that separates the Gaza Strip from Egypt was at the heart of discussions George Mitchell, the new US Middle East envoy, held with both Egyptian and Israeli officials yesterday.

Mr Mitchell, who is on a swing through the region in his first visit as Barack Obama’s envoy, arrived for talks with Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, after meeting Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, in Cairo on how to shore up the fragile unilateral ceasefires in and around Gaza. Israel and Hamas called separate ceasefires 10 days ago to end Israel’s brutal 22-day offensive.

“The prime minister and I discussed the critical importance to consolidate the ceasefire, including a cessation of hostilities, an end to smuggling and reopening of the crossings based on 2005 agreements,” he said after meeting Mr Olmert.

He was referring to agreements under which Gaza’s Rafah crossing with Egypt, the sole border that bypasses Israel, was to be operated by Egyptian and Palestinian Authority forces, along with European Union observers and Israeli monitoring via live cameras.

Mr Olmert said Israel would open Gaza’s borders, which it has kept sealed to all but essential humanitarian goods since Hamas seized power there in June 2007, if militants released a soldier kidnapped in June 2006.

“A permanent opening of the crossings will be linked to solving the issue of Gilad Shalit,” a senior Israeli official quoted Mr Olmert as telling the envoy.

Echoing comments made in Egypt after meeting Mr Mubarak, Mr Mitchell promised that “the US will sustain an active commitment to reaching the goal of the two states living side by side in peace and security”.

In Egypt, Mr Mitchell had praised Egyptian efforts to mediate a lasting ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and told reporters that it was “of critical importance that the ceasefire be extended and consolidated”.

“The decision by President Obama to dispatch me to come to this region less than one week after his inauguration is clear and tangible evidence of this commitment.”

But Mr Mitchell has his work cut out for him. The calm in Gaza is fraying. On Tuesday, an explosion that killed one Israeli soldier and wounded two others near the Kisufim crossing saw Israel respond by closing all crossings into Gaza and returning fire. One Palestinian farmer was killed and a member of the Popular Resistance Committees, a small militant group, was wounded when a missile struck the motorcycle he was riding.

Israeli tanks briefly rolled back into northern Gaza and, early yesterday, Israeli planes targeted three tunnels running under the border from Rafah to Egypt. No one was hurt, nor were there any casualties from a subsequent rocket fired into Israel from Gaza.

The renewed violence underscores just how tenuous the situation in Gaza still is. No one claimed responsibility for the Tuesday explosion, but Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, said Israel would hold Hamas responsible for any and all violence in and around Gaza, while Ehud Barak, the defence minister, cancelled a trip to Washington. Aides cited the “security situation”.

Hamas, too, remained defiant. The Islamic Resistance Movement’s unilateral ceasefire declaration last Sunday stipulated a week-long end of hostilities during which Israeli forces should pull out. More broadly, however, Hamas expects crossings into Gaza to open for more than just humanitarian relief. That will still be the test of any lasting ceasefire.

“There is no ceasefire without a ceasefire agreement,” said Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas official, yesterday. “Hamas announced a one-week end to fighting. That ended Sunday. Israeli forces may have left, but crossings are still closed, so this is only back to the [previous] situation.”

Mr Yousef said a lasting ceasefire agreement would have to provide guarantees that crossings into Gaza would open for normal trade as well as people, a view supported throughout Gaza, even from tunnel operators, those who profit the most from the closing.

One such operator, who gave his name as Abu Mussab, said the Israeli bombardment of the Rafah border strip had only done superficial damage to the tunnel industry. He estimated that only 10 per cent of tunnels had been damaged in Israeli strikes, including two out of his own three. He said his tunnels would be operational again in a week, and that other tunnels were operational two days after the offensive ended.

Smuggling through the tunnels had ceased during the Israeli offensive, said Mr Abu Mussab, something he estimated had lost him US$210,000 (Dh770,000) – $180,000 in lost income and $30,000 for needed repairs.

Yet in spite of the large profit margin, Mr Abu Mussab said he hoped the crossings would open.

“Should I torture people, so I can work? Of course I want the crossings to open.”

A large element of any ceasefire agreement is likely to concern Egyptian and/or international efforts to end smuggling through tunnels into Gaza. But Mr Abu Mussab said if crossings were open almost all smuggling would end anyway because it is simply too expensive.

The only smuggling he foresaw would continue would be for fuel, which is cheap and easy to bring through, and weapons. And he gave short shrift to any efforts to end arms smuggling.

“We will dig deeper and longer. There will always be a way to smuggle weapons. We smuggled weapons when the Israelis were in charge of the border. That won’t change.”

Mr Yousef also dismissed international efforts to end smuggling and called the attempt “confused”.

“There will be no need for smuggling if crossings are open. And there will be no need for weapons if the occupation ends. That would be a much simpler way for the international community to approach the problem.”

Mr Yousef said he did not expect much from Mr Mitchell’s first visit, which he saw as a fact-finding mission. Nevertheless, he was positive about Mr Mitchell’s appointment, calling him “a man of integrity”. He said he was optimistic that the new US administration would find a way to eventually engage Hamas.

“Ignoring, or not engaging, Hamas will not achieve anything,” said Mr Yousef. “I think the people around [Barack] Obama know this.”

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse