Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Terror attack was matter of time after Gaza border breach

ANALYSIS from Haaretz, by Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff 4/1/08:

Despite the closure of the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on Sunday, it seemed that the next attack, kidnapping or suicide bombing carried out by a Palestinian group against Israelis, in Sinai or the southern Negev, was just a matter of time.

With the border remaining completely open for 12 days, it is difficult to estimate the amount of arms and munitions that were brought into the Strip. Hani and Rami Hamdan, the two brothers from Gaza caught on Saturday wearing explosive belts in Sinai by the Egyptian security forces, four kilometers west of Rafah, were not operating independently.

Just a day earlier the Egyptians arrested 15 armed Palestinians in Sinai, 12 of whom were members of Hamas. Last week, another cell of five Palestinians was arrested near the Taba crossing, and explosive belts were found in their possession. It is fair to assume that in spite of the Egyptian interest to cooperate with Israel in an effort to avert attacks, there are cells who have managed to evade them and hide in the broad expanses of Sinai. In Egypt, they believe that these cells are planning attacks in Sinai, but it also appears that some of them will try to penetrate into Israel along the 300 kilometers of the porous Israel-Sinai border.

Some of the cells are linked with Hamas. Others are part of smaller Palestinian factions. What is clear is that Egypt is now dependent on the goodwill of the Islamic organization. If Hamas wishes, the border at Rafah will remain sealed. If it does not, thousands of Palestinians will be allowed once more to rush into Sinai. Cairo now finds itself facing conflicting Palestinian pressure. Hamas is demanding to set up an orderly crossing through Rafah. If Cairo refuses, the Hamas policemen will ensure that Palestinians sneak into Sinai, like they did Sunday.

Hamas wants larger supplies of fuel and electricity from Egypt. This is also something that Egypt will find it difficult to oppose, since the organization enjoys public support in Egypt, where it is regarded as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, if Egypt agrees to Hamas' demands, it will come into conflict with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is opposed to any compromises with the Islamic organization, and to tensions with the Americans.

Cooperation with Hamas in opening the Rafah crossing means a perpetuation of the Hamas rule in Gaza and a deepening of the rift between Fatahland in the West Bank and Hamastan in the Gaza Strip.

On the face of it, Israel may find some satisfaction at finally seeing Egypt drawn into the Gaza quagmire. But the situation is not a zero-sum game in which a loss for Cairo is an advantage for Jerusalem. Gaza has remained an Israeli problem.

The most troubling aspect of these dramatic developments is that they occured almost by accident and not as a result of an orderly decision-making process in Israel.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided in mid-January to tighten the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip and close the crossings completely following a barrage of rocket attacks against Sderot. The matter was not discussed in an orderly fashion, nor were the professional echelons consulted. The cabinet was nearly not part of the process, and the broadening of the cuts to fuel supplies was done through a broad interpretation of the Supreme Court decision.

For their part, Israeli intelligence missed the meaning of the preparations carried out by Hamas for breaching the border. On the eve of the breakout, the defense establishment in Israel described their policy on the blockade as "trial and error." It seems that it was mostly error.

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