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Gaza Exodus to Egypt: A 'Blessing in Disguise' for Israel?

By in Tel Aviv

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have flooded across the border into Egypt since militants smashed down the border wall early on Wednesday. Israel is reacting with remarkable calm -- despite the added security risk.

The border wall between the Gaza Strip and Egypt is gone. In the early hours of Wednesday morning masked Palestinians blew massive holes in the wall that had divided the two territories. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have since flooded across to Egypt.

So what is Israel doing about it? The open border to Egypt should surely be a security nightmare for the country. Terrorists are now free to bring weapons and ammunition into the coastal strip, which is controlled by the radical Islamist Hamas movement. Not all Palestinians who are going into Egypt, one suspects, are just bringing back bread and butter. The Israeli military is also worried that militant Palestinians could now leave Gaza to go to terrorist training camps for training in weapons and explosives. But the politicians in Jerusalem are reacting with remarkable restraint.

The truth is, the Israeli government doesn't regard the opened border as a new threat. After all there are hundreds of tunnels linking the Gaza Strip and Egypt through which weapons and ammunition have been smuggled in for years. These entrances are so cleverly concealed that they have only seldom been discovered by the Israelis. "What has been happening underground in the Gaza Strip is now happening above ground," one government spokesman said.

In Jerusalem the opening of the border with Egypt is even being greeted with some relief. "Cairo now has to solve the humanitarian problem that we have been dealing with until now," said one Israeli official. Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel told reporters Wednesday: "It's the responsibility of Egypt to ensure the border works properly," pointing to the agreements signed between the two states.

But, as Jerusalem sees it, Egypt now has responsibility for more than just the Gaza Strip's southern border. "The opening of the border relieves us of our responsibility for Gaza," a government official said, "and if the international community demands that the Israeli border with Gaza be opened, we will now point to the Egyptian role." This view was echoed on Thursday when Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said that Israel wanted to "disconnect" from Gaza. He told Army Radio: "We are responsible for it as long as there is no alternative."

In fact the opening of the Egyptian border is being seen as a "blessing in disguise," according to one diplomat. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that he would not allow the situation in the Gaza Strip to turn into a humanitarian crisis. But he has also insisted that the inhabitants there can not expect a normal life so long as Israel is being pounded by rockets coming from Gaza.

Last Friday Israel imposed a complete closure of the Gaza Strip in reaction to the continuing rocket attacks by militant Palestinians. The blockade forced the Palestinians to close down the sole power plant in the strip, due to a lack of fuel. The shutdown left 800,000 people without electricity, particularly in Gaza City and its suburbs. The blockade also affected the supply of food, gas and medicines.

Although Israel did relax the restrictions on Tuesday in the face of international pressure, the situation is still disastrous, Palestinian Amani Abu Rahmeh said by telephone. Since the border opened, one in four Palestinians has at least temporarily left the Gaza Strip. Around 350,000 got into their cars, if they had enough gas, took a taxi if they could afford it, or simply got on a donkey in order to avail of the one-off opportunity to be able to freely leave the Gaza Strip, usually completely cut off from the outside world. Tens of thousands more Palestinians were flooding across the border again on Thursday.

The isolation of the Gaza Strip has not only increased the misery of the 1.5 million people living here, a Palestinian diplomat warned. The blockade could also pose a problem for Israel's partner in the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The peace process that was re-launched in Annapolis in November is losing credibility due to the boycott of Gaza.

Abbas had claimed that he wanted to negotiate with Israel despite the crisis in Gaza. (The two Palestinian territories have been divided since Hamas won a power struggle with Abbas' Fatah movement in Gaza last June.) However, observers in Ramallah, in the West Bank, can hardly imagine that a substantial Israeli-Palestinian meeting can take place while there is such abject poverty in the Gaza Strip. And the complete closure could also end up being counter productive for Israel, the Palestinian diplomat says. Hamas is exploiting the misery of the people for its own gain and provoking a wave of sympathy across the Muslim and Arab World.

There are differing opinions as to how the crisis will affect Hamas' popularity within Gaza itself. Supporters of the radical Islamists speak of a "conspiracy" against Gaza, since the deterioration of the flow of supplies coincided with the visit of the US President George W. Bush to the Middle East. Fatah supporters, however, accuse Hamas of provoking Israel with rocket attacks.

In an effort to improve the lot of the Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad is currently in Europe to hold talks with those countries that pledged a total of $7.4 billion (€5 billion) in financial aid over the next three years at the December donors' conference in Paris. Experience shows that only around half of the money pledged is ever handed over, a Palestinian diplomat says. That is largely to do with the lack of transparency about how the money will be used. The Palestinian territory officials now want to establish clear and binding rules.

Pierre Heumann is the Middle East correspondent for the Swiss weekly Weltwoche.

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