The breaching of the Israeli-built wall dividing the Gaza Strip from Egypt brought some critical relief for the population of 1.5 million Palestinians whom Israel had kept locked into a kind of prison since January 2006. That lock-down was tightened in June 2007, and by early last week it had created a rising humanitarian crisis as Israel completely cut off access into and out of a walled-off Gaza, and halted crucial supplies of fuel, food, and already scarce medicines and medical equipment. By targeting the wall, rather than Egyptian border guards, Hamas also kept the focus on the infrastructure of occupation, rather than the personnel. The opening of the wall, and the crossing of the border by hundreds of thousands, served not only to provide food and medicine; they represented collective feats of popular defiance and the reclaiming of human and social rights.
But the collapse of the Gaza-Egyptian border wall also set in a motion a range of significant power shifts in the international, regional, and internal Palestinian political scenes, shifts which hold the potential for both positive and dangerous consequences
In the international and regional arenas, it is now much more difficult to maintain the U.S. and Israeli-backed campaign to isolate Hamas. While the Egyptian government has made clear its preference for the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority government of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, Cairo has recognized the need to talk to Hamas and has opened communications with the Hamas leadership to discuss regaining some semblance of control over the currently chaotic border. So far Egypt has not used the opportunity to facilitate a resumption of Palestinian unity talks between the Gaza-based Hamas and the West Bank leadership of Fatah, arranging instead separate meetings with each side, but that kind of internal Palestinian unity process may yet emerge. A new unity process would significantly strengthen the struggle to realize Palestinians' national and human rights.
Israel continues to reject Hamas as a political leadership, while imposing collective punishment, prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, against the entire Gaza population, 50% of which is under 14 years of age. But Israel also has an interest - largely unacknowledged, though recently made public by several leading government officials - in having Egypt "take over responsibility" for meeting the humanitarian needs of the Gaza population. Israel has claimed since the summer of 2005, when it withdrew its occupying soldiers and settlers from Gazan territory, that it was no longer responsible for conditions of life in Gaza because it was "no longer occupying" the territory. But that was a lie. International law defines occupation in the context of an outside power controlling the borders and territory - which Israel continued to do, through control of Gaza's borders, border-crossings, air space, coastal waters, underground, economy, electricity - and through constant military attacks, assassinations, and arrest raids. Gaza remains occupied. (There is an interesting question regarding Hamas' political legitimacy, despite the unacceptable militarization of their fight with Fatah last summer. If most Gazans believe the Hamas-led government in Gaza is oppressive or extremist, forcing Islamization on an unwilling population, they would have simply taken the opportunity to stay in Egypt once they crossed the border. But that didn't happen.)
Israel hopes that if Egypt "takes over" the provision of fuel, food, medicines, etc., to Gaza, that Israel will no longer face criticism from humanitarian and human rights organizations, and will somehow be off the hook. So while there is continuing concern expressed in Israel about allowing Gazans free passage into and out of their own territory, many Israelis are not-so-secretly pleased with the prospect of Egypt re-engaging with the Gaza Strip.
Similarly, the U.S. is continuing to pressure Egypt, gently, to re-close the border and reassert control over entry and exit to and from Gaza. But that U.S. pressure is mitigated by the Bush administration's continuing dependence on Egypt for support (or at least in preventing large-scale opposition) for the U.S. war in Iraq, and especially for Egypt's role in maintaining regional Arab support for the escalation against Iran. So the U.S. is requesting, rather than demanding, compliance from Cairo.
The heaviest pressure on the Egyptian government, in fact, seems to be coming not from Washington or Tel Aviv, but from the Cairo streets. Demonstrators have demanded that President Mubarak allow the border to remain open. And despite some tensions between Palestinian shoppers and Egyptian store owners when the government refused to allow local Egyptian stores to re-stock their goods, the overwhelming public opinion in Egypt seems to be strong support for allowing Gazans open access to Egypt, both for humanitarian and political reasons. Facing that public challenge, Mubarak is likely to tread lightly on the Palestinians. In the medium term, an Egyptian arrangement with the European Union to "monitor" an open Gaza-Egypt crossing, possibly with less overt Israeli control than in earlier versions, and with the Palestinian side controlled jointly by the two parts of the Palestinian Authority's polity (the Fatah-led presidency from the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled parliament in Gaza) could be the result.
Depending on how the new border arrangement looks, it could result in a significant (at least temporarily significant) shift in the political geography of Gaza and of occupied Palestine as a whole. Such an outcome could have several positive results. It could alleviate the worst of the humanitarian crisis that has been imposed on Gaza since the victory of Hamas in the parliamentary elections of January 2006, by allowing people and goods free access in and out of Gaza. It would allow some potential recovery of the shattered Gazan agricultural sector. And there could be a possible move towards greater integration of the weakened Palestinian economy with the Egyptian and other Arab economies, rather than having to rely solely on relations with the enormously larger and wealthier Israeli economy. And ultimately, such a shift would at the very least shake up a political stalemate that has been largely paralyzed for years.
But there are serious dangers as well. A permanent, or even medium-term opening between Gaza and Egypt holds the potential of a return to the 1948-1967 period, following the Palestinian nakba, or catastrophe, that resulted from the creation of the State of Israel, when Egypt maintained military control over Gaza. While not the same kind of military occupation that Israel imposed from 1967 on, Egyptian control certainly constrained the potential political and economic development of Gaza. Most importantly, an Egypt-linked Gaza would consolidate the rift splitting the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Gaza - further separating sectors of the already forcibly divided Palestinian nation. Depending on Egypt's stance, there is certainly the danger that some parts of the international community might follow Washington's likely lead in endorsing Israel's claim that it was no longer the occupying power in Gaza, thus undermining Palestinian rights guaranteed by international law and UN resolutions.
Internally, within Palestinian society, the breaching of the wall and the mass participation in the "no-border" crossing, have provided a huge boost to social and political mobilization. The level of involvement - the UN estimated that as many as half of Gaza's 1.5 million people may have crossed into Egypt - showed the potential to rebuild on a national scale the kind of popular resistance movement that characterized the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising. That mobilization, from the end of 1987 through 1993, brought virtually every sector of society into active political life - women, children, old people, farmers, medical workers, trade unions, cultural workers - and the internal "shaking up" of Palestinian society that resulted was in fact more important in building resistance than the symbolic stone-throwing of the children.
The second uprising began in 2000 under conditions in many ways more difficult, including a leadership that was much more top-down than the bottom-up grassroots and unified leadership that characterized the first intifada. The second intifada was also much more a phenomenon of militias and armed actions than it was an example of popular mobilization; the vast majority of Palestinians were not directly involved as they had been during the first uprising. (And it is not insignificant that most of the young 20-something men who made up the gunmen of the second intifada, had been toddlers and small children during the first uprising - too young to remember the popular mobilization, but old enough to remember their fathers and older brothers being beaten, arrested, humiliated by Israeli occupation soldiers.)
The closest thing to the popular mobilization of the first intifada has been the non-violent civil disobedience actions that have continued for years across parts of the West Bank - in places like Bi'ilin and the Har Homa settlement, and elsewhere where local Palestinians are joined with internationals and some Israelis to protest the building of the apartheid Wall and the continuing encroachment of expanding settlements and settler-only roads built on stolen Palestinian land. And there have been such popular mobilizations in Gaza as well. It was in Rafah, close to the Egyptian border crossing, that American peace activist Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli soldier in 2003 while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home. But in general neither the West Bank nor Gaza have experienced the kind of permanent national mobilization and popular direct action for nearly fifteen years. Breaching the Gaza wall sent a message around the world - but first of all to the Palestinians themselves - that they could return to that level of permanent popular mobilization. They had done it once. They could do it again, in Gaza, the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.
And in the U.S., the call to popular non-violent collective action is also underway to protest wars and occupation in Palestine as well as in Iraq, Afghanistan and to prevent war against Iran. Those protests, opposing our government's support for Israeli occupation and apartheid and demanding instead a policy based on an end to occupation, human rights and equality for all, take place in the streets, in the halls of congress, through petitions and media activism, in teach-ins and speaking tours across the country. The protests remain our answer to those U.S. policies, and our message of solidarity to Palestinians suffering under and mobilizing to resist Israeli apartheid.
In noting the passing this week of Dr. George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Palestine's most visionary leader, there is a particularly poignant reality in recognizing that so many Palestinians (and other veterans of anti-colonial struggles) in the U.S. who might wish to mourn his passing are afraid to do so publicly for fear of the post-9/11 consequences of appearing to "support" the PFLP. Whatever critical assessments one might make of Dr. Habash's strategic approach, al Hakim was the conscience of the PLO. That remains his legacy, and for that he is already greatly missed.
Phyllis Bennis is author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. Her first book, with photographer Neal Cassidy, was From Stones to Statehood: The Palestinian Uprising. For more information, go to www.ips-dc.org, where you can also sign up to receive these occasional articles and talking points by clicking the "Stay Connected" button and select "New Internationalism" as well as any other projects of interest. The U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation can be reached at www.endtheoccupation.org.
Institute for Policy Studies