Egypt /Now Gaza Is Their Problem

Not intelligence gathering, not experts, just common sense was the only thing needed to realize that the break in the barrier between besieged Rafah and free Rafah was only a matter of time. The tunnels dug into the soft sand between the two areas could only fulfill part of the needs of the Gazans; an above ground passage had to be opened, one that could accommodate cars and small trucks, as occurred yesterday.

Egypt feared just such a possibility. President Hosni Mubarak understood that the Israeli closure tested not only the Palestinians' limits, but also the flexibility of the border between Israel and Egypt - and not only in the vicinity of Gaza.

Egyptian public opinion as reflected in television broadcasts, blogs and street demonstrations showed Mubarak that he was seen as an integral part of the Israeli occupation, as long as he did not allow Gazans to purchase needed provisions. He explained his fears in phone calls with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The pressure helped a little, but the photographs of fuel delivery trucks moving into Gaza did not turn down the pressure within Egypt.

Particularly serious was the incident on Tuesday in which Egyptian police officers, mobilized to prevent the border from being breached, shot at Palestinian civilians. By yesterday Mubarak had already instructed his forces not to interfere with the Palestinians who were crossing into Gaza, and to permit a few hundred thousand people to cross back and forth, in effect destroying Israel's sanctions policy.

Now, however, both Egypt and Israel are trapped in the same problem. First, who will repair the barrier? Will the Hamas authorities permit Egypt to rebuild it? Will Israel be able to rebuild it, and how much force will be required to do so?

The issue is not just a technical one. At least until the barrier can be repaired Egypt will have to assign officials to oversee the border traffic, to check who enters and leaves the border area and who leaves for other parts of the country. Above all, it will have to cooperate with the Hamas leadership, which has already offered to conduct formal contacts with Egypt.

Such an arrangement will make Egypt directly responsible for this unofficial border crossing, while at the same time making a mockery of the closure of the official crossing. Egypt will have to work out the arrangement with Hamas without eliminating the power of influence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - in other words, it will have to get the Palestinian Authority and Hamas talking again.