People of the border

 
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By Osama Diab

Rafah, a city divided between Gaza and Egypt, and between war and peace, prays for the opening of the border crossing.

January 2009

Ambulance workers at the Rafah border crossing. Image © Copyright Osama Diab.

Ambulance workers at the Rafah border crossing. Image © Copyright Osama Diab.

The Rafah border crossing has sparked endless controversy since the start of the Israeli attacks on Gaza on December 27. Egypt’s point-blank refusal to open the border is interpreted by many in the Arab world as a gesture of support for Israel’s war on Gaza, mainly to weaken Hamas, which has ties to Egypt’s outlawed but often tolerated Muslim Brotherhood. The visit of the Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni a few hours before the attacks confirmed, in the minds of many, the doubts that Egypt might have been notified, turning scepticism into certainty about Egypt’s position on the war. Demonstrations were held outside Egyptian embassies in almost every Arab capital and many European cities.

The Egyptian government is furious at the accusations and stated that Egypt’s support for the Palestinian cause is indisputable. President Hosni Mubarak says opening the crossing will deepen the divide between Gaza and the West Bank. He also described the opening of the border as an “Israeli trap”, and that once Egypt opened the crossing unconditionally, Israel would go ahead and close its borders with Gaza.

Leaving this political storm behind, I travelled to the border town of Rafah to see for myself what the people who live closest to the crossing, and the war, think about the conflict, and how it affects them. An air of gloom and doom hung over the small town. All the streets leading to the borders were blocked by the army and it seemed that the only people on the streets were there for necessity.

Under the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the agreed border separated the then-Israeli occupied Gaza from Egypt by cutting the town of Rafah into two halves. However, both sides of the town still share a lot in common, and many still have extended family on the other side of the border. And with Palestinian kufiyas wrapped around most necks and people speaking a more Palestinian than Egyptian dialect, the people of Egyptian Rafah still share a lot with their Palestinian neighbours, despite the divide.

“What is happening in Gaza is a shame. I can’t describe how I feel, but I always pray for my brothers in Gaza,” said Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, a shopkeeper in Egyptian Rafah. “The effect of the war on us is dire; the ground shakes under us every time Israel sends a bomb. We are afraid and we feel that death is near.”

The opening of the crossing has economic benefits and brings money into Egyptian Rafah. When Gazans destroyed part of the border wall on January 23, 2008, tens of thousands of people from the Strip flooded into Rafah and the nearby town of Arish to buy supplies that were scarce due to the siege on their city. The hole in the wall meant Gazans could buy up a couple of weeks of supplies and cash for the people of Egyptian Rafah people. It was reported that everything was sold for up to triple its normal market price.

Ayman, our driver in Rafah, described it best when he said that the government should open the border because the Gazans desperately need supplies and Rafah’s people are desperate for money. Moreover, with the border open permanently, this kind of profiteering could be eliminated, enabling Gazans to get their supplies at decent prices and generating a constant stream of business for locals in Rafah.

The general fear that if the border is open, Gazans, out of desperation, will flood into Sinai and sound the death knell for the Strip. The Egyptians of Rafah and Arish disagree and believe that Gazans will get what they need and head back to their homes because they do not want to leave Palestine and their land. “Gazans are attached to their land and don’t want to leave Palestine. If they had the intention to leave, they would’ve done so a long time ago,” argues Abdel-Hamid.

It seems that the people of the border are more relaxed than the Egyptian government about opening the crossing. They are convinced it won’t have the serious consequences Cairo claims and fears. Egyptian officials may be project on the Gazans what they would do if they were in their shoes. Most would think, and no one would blame them, that it is wise to escape the violence that has already claimed more than 800 Gazan lives, but this is not necessarily how people who have fought a lifetime for their land behave.

Since opening the border can save the lives of hundreds of women and children by letting people temporarily out of the war zone and letting doctors in, and since the people who are going to be directly affected by it on the Egyptian side are actually calling for it, why not just open it up?

Egypt’s position on this war is very similar to its position on the Lebanon war two years ago, when Mubarak called Hizbullah’s action an “adventure”, accusing the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah of dragging his whole nation into war. History is repeating itself and Mubarak is also accusing Hamas of being adventurous and dragging Gaza into war. Blaming the war entirely on Hamas is an opinion only shared by Mubarak, Bush and Israeli politicians. It makes a lot of sense, since Egypt’s leadership, the US and Israel share the same enemy, militant Islamic groups.

My argument has always been that Islamic groups are hindering political reform in Egypt because their presence is used by secular regimes as an excuse to become more oppressive. But what the United States, Egypt and Israel are doing is creating unprecedented support for these groups on the Egyptian street, which will only lead to more political complexity and turmoil. Egypt’s regime should offer a viable alternative to what Hamas and Hizbullah offer, and a good move will be opening the crossing to reduce the effect of the war and siege on Gaza.

© Copyright Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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Profits of war

 
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By Khaled Diab

The economic rewards of peace are supposed to lure Israelis and Palestinians away from conflict. But what if war is its own reward?

January 2009

The heart-wrenching carnage and humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza – and the mass fear in southern Israel – is made all the more tragic by the fact that it seems to follow a well-rehearsed script of tense silences followed by sudden, spasmodic eruptions of violence.

Just as the war against Lebanon in 2006 was as shocking as it was sudden and was triggered by the flimsiest of pretexts, the reinvasion of Gaza has also struck like a whirlwind. And just like Lebanon in 2006 and 1982 – as well as the reinvasions of the Palestinian territories following the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada and the election victory of Hamas – the current campaign is unlikely to bring Israelis anything more than a little tense respite.

Like Hamas, which seems incapable of realising the futility of armed struggle and declaring a non-violent peace movement, Israel appears to be completely beholden to the logic of the battering ram. This raises the question of why it is that, despite all the evidence that overwhelming force simply does not work, Israel still has not abandoned its prized “deterrence” policy.

The tragedy in Gaza could be seen as a desperate bid by Israel to reassert its sense of lost deterrence, or simply as another cynical bid by the Kadima leadership to boost their ailing popularity before next month’s elections.

But there are many other factors at play, too. In the past, I’ve explored the role of ideology, including what I call the ‘God veto’, political fragmentation and psychological barriers in perpetuating the conflict. In addition to these, there is an increasingly prominent economic dimension.

At one time, war for Israel meant economic paralysis and crisis, but was sustained by a mesmerising ideology, the fresh memory of persecution and a large array of potentially frightening enemies. But even with Israel as the undisputed regional military superpower and its former enemies falling one by one by the wayside, Israeli violence has risen significantly in recent years, especially towards the Palestinians.

This is partly because a durable peace with the Palestinians requires more fundamental compromises than with the Egyptians and Jordanians as a fair settlement raises issues that strike at the heart of Zionism. Another reason is that, after so many generations, conflict has not only become intrinsically interwoven into Israel’s social fabric, it has also become hardwired into its economy.

During the Oslo years, Shimon Peres – who favoured a “peace of markets” before a “peace of flags” – and the Labour party were backed by influential members of the business community who were lured by the peace dividend Israel could earn from a resolution to the conflict. But under rightwing stewardship in recent years, the Israeli economy has been profiting from its own and global conflict and insecurity.

In fact, for the past few years, Israel has enjoyed one of the highest economic growth rates in the world, and is still registering healthy growth even as western economies falter. Much of this growth has been fuelled by the high-tech ‘Silicon Wadi’ sector, much of it security-related technologies, and arms.

According to the Israel Export and International Co-operation Institute, security and homeland security exports reached $3 billion in 2005. In 2007, Israel overtook Britain to become the world’s fourth largest weapons exporter, selling a total of $4 billion in arms.

On top of that, since the bursting of the dot-com bubble, Israel has boosted its military spending, partly to help salvage high-tech firms. Last year, proved to be yet another record year, with the country’s defence budget subsuming a massive 16% of government spending and 7% of GDP. Add to that, the average $3 billion in military aid which Israel receives from the United States each year, and you have a truly staggering economic dependence on the way of the gun.

This is not to say that this is necessarily a war dividend for Israel as a whole, but those involved wield a powerful lobby. In addition, Israel does not seem to be paying a massive war premium. High-tech industries do not require Israel to be on good terms with its neighbours, while with most western economies, it’s business as usual, regardless of the political situation on the ground. The EU, as a whole, remains Israel’s main trading partner, with bilateral trade at around €20 billion, followed closely by the United States.

Moreover, low-intensity flare-ups seem to give the markets some welcome jolts. Between 27 December, when the Gaza offensive began, and 5 January, the benchmark TA-25 stock index climbed an impressive 8.7%. Similarly, the index gained 3.6% in July 2006 during the Lebanon campaign. In addition, Israel and the occupied territories are slowly being transformed into macabre showcases for security products.

Israel has even managed to wean itself off its dependence on Palestinian labour, with the massive influx of Russian Jews who arrived in massive numbers in the 1990s. This has enabled Israel to close off the Palestinian territories without feeling major economic pain itself. In contrast to Israel, the massive economic deterioration – along with the political deadlock – triggered by the mass closures that began in the Oslo years, suggested to many Palestinians that the quest for peace would not deliver them a dividend, a frustration which culminated in the second intifada.

In addition, while a small elite profits from the political instability and insecurity, the ongoing conflict serves the additional purpose of distracting ordinary Israelis from the growing levels of poverty into which they are descending – much like Arab leaders have exploited the demise of Palestinians.

In conclusion, a sort of alignment of convenience has emerged between influential segments of Israel’s economic elite and ideological opponents of the peace process. Add to that, the revolving door between the military and the upper echelons of politics and industry, and the “war economy” locomotive appears even harder to derail.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 11 January 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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