Egypt's Gaza Policy / A pan-Arab Consensus?

The Gaza Strip is not Egyptian territory, Egyptian spokesmen were keen to point out yesterday. But the feeding tube that Egypt linked to 1.5 million Palestinians may be used to choke it. The main problem is how to keep thousands of Palestinians from making their way to the Suez Canal and on to Cairo. Egyptian security forces are well aware that the roadblocks and tight controls on the roads to the canal will not be able to prevent anyone determined to reach the Egyptian capital. But Egypt may not be their only destination.

Another part of Egypt the Gazans can escape to are the tourist areas in the southern Sinai, one of the main sources of income for Egypt. Or they could stay in El Arish, which would lead to a loss of control over the city by the Egyptian authorities who are busy in a bitter struggle against Bedouin bands and terrorist cells suspected of links to Al-Qaida.

Israel's threat to disengage from all responsibility for what is going on in the Strip, including the supply of food, medicines, fuel and other items, does not appear to frighten Cairo. Gaza is a relatively large market that could help Egyptian commerce, but Egypt is not interested in being responsible for the raw materials for Qassam rocket production that will invariably cross into Gaza, or the fact that it will be turned into a refuge for fugitive militants. The main Egyptian worry is that they will be the ones considered responsible for every Qassam fired from the Gaza Strip at Sderot, as Syria became responsible for Hassan Nasrallah's actions in Lebanon.

The more reasonable option is that Egypt will fix the breach in the wall and build a supervised crossing, or violate the agreements with the international Quartet and open the Rafah crossing under Egyptian-Palestinian supervision. This would mean daily cooperation with the Hamas leadership because the Palestinian Authority will not be able to monitor the crossings as long as there is no accord between Fatah and Hamas. Without such agreement Hamas will not allow the forces of PA President Mahmoud Abbas to take over the crossings.

The implication of any such development is the canceling of the main form of leverage Abbas and Israel hold against Hamas. It will also possibly lead to formal recognition by Egypt and the broader Arab world of Hamas' control over the Strip. On Wednesday, the Hamas leadership was quick to dispatch a delegation to Cairo to propose supervision arrangements over the crossings, which for now Egypt has turned down, but will not be able to avoid for long.

Such developments will add to existing tensions with Israel, and will put Cairo on a direct collision course with Washington. This is the context of yesterday's statement from Cairo that Egypt intends to restore the situation to its status quo. But this will be difficult to achieve in view of the public support in Egypt and the broader Arab world for the breach in the border.