Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Worsening Situation Between Egypt And Israel

By Hasan Abu Nimah
Egyptian-Israeli relations have come into sharp focus since the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, which was followed by instability in the Sinai Peninsula, repeated attempts to destroy the Egypt-Israel gas pipelines and the August 18 attack on Israeli targets near Eilat.
The situation has been further inflamed by Israel’s killing of five Egyptian soldiers as a result of the August 18 border incident, and popular demonstrations in Cairo calling at least for the expulsion of the Israeli embassy.
As customary, the Israeli authorities refused to apologise for killing the five soldiers on Egyptian soil, allegedly in retaliation for the August 18 attack, even though they knew that there was no Egyptian involvement in the case.
By just expressing regret for the killing, without admitting responsibility, Israeli Minister of Defence Ehud Barak only poured oil on a raging fire. Last Friday, the angry crowds around the Israeli embassy in Cairo stormed the place, forcing the Israeli ambassador and his staff to leave the country in haste.
Only two weeks ago, Israel had to cope with the disastrous consequences of its obstinate rejection to offer an apology to the Turkish government for the killing of nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara, a ship of the flotilla on a humanitarian mission to Gaza, on May 31.
Israel’s arrogant conduct is steadily increasing its isolation and depriving it of significant strategic regional allies. Growing frustration with Israel’s continued disrespect for its international obligations, as well as its continued aggression on Arab and Palestinian rights, is by no means limited to Egypt or caused just by border skirmishes. It has been festering for years, but has been generally disguised by seeming collaboration with many Arab regimes, of which many have recently been overthrown.
Contrary to some circulating claims, the Arab Spring did not change the feelings of the Arab crowds towards Israel and the agreements between Israel and some Arab countries; the Arab Spring has only loosened the grip of the heavy hand of former regimes, such as Egypt’s Mubarak, in a way that allows people to express their deep, years-old, exasperation with Israeli manipulation with full impunity, aggression without accountability and humiliating injustice felt profoundly by most Arab people.
The harsh terms of the 1979 Camp David accords imposed upon Egypt by subjugation were inevitably bound to head the debate following the revolutionary change. The process has been sped up by the deteriorating situation in Sinai, which is apparently becoming a suitable haven for outlaw groups because the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt places severe restrictions on the presence of Egyptian armed forces in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
If that restriction was considered necessary when the terms of the treaty were negotiated over 30 years ago, it should be revised now. Such harsh terms should not apply forever.
Keeping the forces of one side far from the border, while allowing the other full military presence, and indeed military activity up to the very last inch of the frontline, is wrong and should not be acceptable.
In similar situations, contracting parties normally agree to end hostilities and create buffer zones from which forces on both sides would be barred, to avoid possible friction. But buffer zones are usually cut equally on both sides, equidistantly from the border. Israel, however, never agreed to any restriction on the side of the border it controls.
During the past six decades there were numerous armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Many of them required the presence of United Nations peacekeeping forces - including the Camp David treaty - but always on Arab territory. Not once was a UN peacekeeping soldier or a UN observation post allowed on Israeli-controlled or occupied territory.
Currently there are UN forces monitoring the lines between Israel, on the one hand, and Syria and Lebanon, on the other.
Sinai has been host to a large UN peacekeeping force following the withdrawal of Israeli forces, which first occupied the Egyptian peninsula up to the shores of the Suez Canal, in the 1956 aggression by Britain, France and Israel, which invaded the territory in an unprovoked attack in order to seize the canal.
At the time, Egypt alone had to agree to limit its military presence on its own sovereign territory and accept the presence of UN peacekeepers on its soil, presumably to protect Israel from a possible Egyptian attack.
The irony was that Israel, which was subject to no restrictions, was the one that waged a total war on Egypt, Jordan and Syria simultaneously, in 1967, 11 years after the Suez aggression. The invading Israeli forces managed in just a few days to reoccupy the entire Egyptian Sinai desert all the way to the Suez Canal, as well as the Gaza Strip, the West Bank including East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights (occupied to this day).
Sinai was eventually returned to Egypt in the context of the 1979 treaty, but the treaty included the strict limits on deployment of Egyptian forces along the 200-kilometre-long common border in Sinai.
While only 750 Egyptian soldiers are permitted in the entire area, Israel agreed only to a symbolic thinning of its forces in a very narrow area of no more than three kilometres. It is hard to ascertain if the restriction on the Israeli side was ever observed.
In its entire history, Egypt, upon which restrictions were always unilaterally applied, never attacked Israeli territory. Twice, in 1956 and in 1967, Israel was the aggressor and the occupier. Once, in 1973, in the so-called October War, Egypt launched a surprise attack on the Israeli occupation force in Sinai, crossing the Suez Canal in a brilliant military operation. But even then, the Egyptians were crossing into their own land to liberate it from Israeli occupation. Under international law that is legitimate. Not once did an Egyptian soldier step on Israeli territory, and yet Egypt has always been treated as the aggressor for whom precautionary measures were deemed necessary to stem its aggression.
In the last few years Israel has been caught in a security dilemma of its own making. Mubarak’s Egypt, which was very loyal to its obligation to protect Israel’s southern border despite the shameful implications concerning the situation in besieged Gaza, was unable to provide adequate policing of the border in view of the applied restrictions.
The August 18 attack on an Israeli bus carrying soldiers - and Israel claims civilians - near Eilat has brought an already precarious situation to crisis point. This last attack was preceded by repeated attacks on the pipeline that carries Egyptian gas to Israel and there were other security breaches, mainly on the Egyptian side but threatening to spill over into Israel, as they finally did.
As the instability in Sinai has increased, Israel was considering the Egyptian request to deploy more forces on its territory - obviously in order to better protect Israeli, not Egyptian, security needs.
Israel is presenting this humiliating “concession” to Egypt as if it were doing Egypt a great favour. The offer should be rejected outright, and under the circumstances, Egypt should demand an urgent review of the treaty whereby all restrictions on Egyptian freedom of action on its territory should be removed. Egypt should not continue to surrender this sovereign right to Israel or subject its actions to demeaning Israeli permissions.
The other option in case of procrastination is for Egyptian forces to move freely anywhere they deem necessary in Sinai, without waiting for anyone’s approval, particularly not Israel’s.
As long as Israel assumes the right to operate freely on territory it controls, as well as on that of its neighbours, no restrictions should apply to anyone else.
What could Israel do? Reoccupy Sinai? That would only make Israel’s dire situation considerably worse.
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 14/09/2011

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