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Gazans entry into Egypt puts peace on hold

Sunday, February 3, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:05 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.

Loory: Last week, Hamas, the militant organization that controls the Gaza Strip between Israel and Egypt, blew down a section of the wall that divides Gaza from Egypt. Thousands of Palestinians have streamed across the border from impoverished Gaza into Egypt to buy goods ranging from fuel to livestock. Those goods have been unavailable in Gaza for more than six months since Israel declared an embargo on the Strip to protest the election victory that brought Hamas to power. Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and opposes the Palestinian Authority leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, which does recognize Israel’s right to exist. Egypt is trying to control its border as Gazans sweep its shelves clean, driving up prices and creating shortages. Abbas is trying to reassert authority over Gaza, where Hamas is in control. Israel, which abandoned Gaza two and a half years ago, is keeping pressure on the Strip and trying to bring Hamas down. This dispute is over an area about twice the size of the District of Columbia, with a population of only 1.5 million people. Despite the area’s smallness, the problems could be an important part in any search for a Middle East settlement. What is the situation in Gaza?

Taghreed El-Khodary, correspondent, The New York Times, Gaza: People are still trying to go to Egypt. Merchants who have liquidity are buying whatever they can. More cigarettes, salt, gasoline, cheese, sheep and goats are coming into Gaza. Other people are going to Egypt just to have days of freedom, like they have been in jail and suddenly they can cross. They’re going to see a place that isn’t Gaza, to enjoy a place where there isn’t fear. For the first time as a journalist, I’ve talked to Palestinians while they’re smiling and laughing. I’m not talking about desperate or injured people, whose families lost loved ones or fighters.

Loory: Are the Egyptians happy?

Charles Onians, executive bureau chief, Agence France-Presse, Cairo, Egypt: Egyptians who wanted to buy things that are unavailable or are priced exceptionally high because of the market force of several hundred thousand Palestinians coming into the area are upset, but they’re in the minority. There’s a great deal of solidarity between the Gazans and the Egyptians, who have an idea of what the Gazans have been through under the Israeli blockade and who want to help. Diplomatically it’s difficult for Egypt because Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel. It’s also a strong U.S. ally, but it cannot be seen treating the Palestinians badly.

Loory: How are the people of the West Bank doing?

Sam Bahour, freelance journalist, Ramallah, West Bank: The West Bank community is disillusioned by the reality that the Israeli occupation has created, which is compartmentalizing every Palestinian community and dealing with them in separate ways. In one way, they have imprisoned an entire Gaza Strip population to a point where we saw them breaking out of prison at the border, Rafah. At the same time, in the West Bank, there is a military operation arresting people and demolishing homes. People have been overwhelmed by the occupation’s brutality and by the international community not bringing the occupier into line with international law.

Loory: Is Abbas making headway in negotiations to settle the border problems between Gaza and Egypt?

Bahour: People don’t understand what he’s waiting for from the Israelis. Negotiating with the Egyptians isn’t going to change Israeli policy. It’s a dangerous period, and what is happening is very political. This is the first time the Palestinians have broken out of the occupation using nonviolent resistance. Abbas rushed to Egypt because he saw that the power of people moving in masses to break down borders could be a huge threat to his leadership. The nightmare scenario for Abbas is if other parts of the Palestinian community under the occupation take the lead in a nonviolent, en masse way. Once that happens, Abbas will lose control because he has chosen only one path to resolve this conflict, negotiations that weren’t working until now.

Jay Bushinsky, U.S. correspondent, CBS Radio, Jerusalem: Hamas doesn’t participate in those negotiations and opposes them in principle. Abbas is concerned about whether President Bush can go along with him and Ehud Olmert in moving towards a reasonable peace settlement, namely two states for two nations. This diplomatic process is continuing partly to please Bush. Actual movement towards peace is negligible.

Loory: What is the Bush administration’s reaction to the situation in Gaza?

Joseph Curl, White House correspondent, The Washington Times, Florida: The situation has been going on for so long and is so complex that the Bush administration is continuing to weigh how to wade into it. When the president was in Ramallah, he said it was a misconception that the U.S. president could simply step in and solve these problems. He said his role is to nudge the process forward. The president needs to get the parties to talk about things. He also has his hands tied with Abbas, so he needs to step back and let Abbas run this negotiation.

Loory: Are the Egyptians doing anything to rebuild the wall and close off Gaza?

Onians: There are piecemeal moves to secure the border, and whenever they put up wire mesh fences over one breach, other breaches emerge. Two crossings are open, and they’re not letting any Palestinian cars enter Egypt, but they are letting Egyptian cars enter and leave Gaza. Official Egyptian media said they’re planning to build another more developed barrier on the frontier, but they didn’t set any timetable. The main problem is no construction will happen until there’s a tricky political deal involving Hamas, Fatah and the Egyptian authorities.

Loory: Has Hamas’ standing improved because of the breach in the wall, or will international pressure have some impact?

El-Khodary: Hamas has succeeded in imposing itself, and Egypt is in an embarrassing situation. It cannot use force against the Palestinians. The opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, is gaining support in the street. The Egyptian government is fragile, so it cannot risk strengthening the opposition. If it confronts the Palestinians at the crossing, that will be used against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak by the opposition. The only winner is Hamas. Hamas has told the Palestinians that it’s not behind their daily suffering, but Israel, Fatah and the U.S. are.

Loory: What will be the impact of the final report of the Winograd Commission, which says Olmert did the right thing?

Bushinsky: That interpretation is rife in the mass media, but if looked at objectively, the report is extremely critical of the political level, a euphemism for Olmert’s government. It’s also critical of the Israeli military for botching the second Lebanon War in summer 2006. The Israeli public understands that, but Olmert is trying to turn the text around to make it look as if he’s no longer guilty of that war’s failure. One has to wait a few more days to see whether the Israeli public will swallow this.

Loory Final Word: The people of Gaza have been given some comfort by the breeches in the wall with Egypt, but as long as Hamas remains in control of the border and the Gazan government, there appears to be little hope of putting an Israeli-Arab peace agreement into effect.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Heather Perne, Hui Wang and Catherine Wolf.


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