Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

Q&A: ‘Hamas Curbing Groups Firing Rockets’

Interview with Mohamed Bassyouni, head of the Egyptian Shura Council's Foreign Relations Committee

CAIRO, Jul 27 2008 (IPS) - Sharing a border with both Israel and the Gaza Strip, Egypt has historically played a major role in Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Egyptian involvement in the longstanding conflict has deepened since June of last year, when resistance group Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip – having won legislative elections a year earlier – from the U.S.-backed Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mohamed Bassyouni Credit:

Mohamed Bassyouni Credit:

Since then, Israel has kept its borders with the Hamas-run enclave hermetically sealed. Egypt, meanwhile, has kept its own border with the Gaza Strip closed, citing the absence of a formal border agreement. The precarious situation has led some critics to accuse Egypt of aiding Israel’s ongoing siege of Gaza, which has resulted in untold hardships for the strip’s roughly 1.5 million inhabitants.

Mohamed Bassyouni, head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Shura Council (Egypt’s upper house of parliament) and former ambassador to Israel, spoke to IPS correspondents Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani.

IPS: Last month, Egypt played a central role in mediating a tahdia, or calming of hostilities between Israel and Palestinian resistance groups in the Gaza Strip. What exactly are the terms of the agreement?

Mohamed Bassyouni: The tahdia is being implemented gradually, in phases. The first phase consists of a calm for calm – meaning that both sides halt all aggression against one another. At the same time, the siege of the Gaza Strip should be gradually lifted and Israel’s border crossings with the territory should be opened gradually to allow for the entry of food, fuel and other essential goods.

When this is accomplished, there will be a suitable environment in which a prisoner swap can be agreed to by both sides. And from there, we can start working on an inter-Palestinian dialogue in order to achieve a degree of Palestinian national unity – not just dialogue between Hamas and Fatah, but also between Fatah and the 13 other Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza.

When the tahdia finally brings an improvement to the everyday life of Palestinians – when they have access to sufficient food and medicine – we will begin hearing more calls by the people for inter-Palestinian dialogue. Ultimately, the main objective of the tahdia is to lighten the suffering of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.

IPS: Israel has repeatedly accused Palestinian resistance factions in the Gaza Strip of violating the truce by firing short-range rockets at targets in Israel. Is there any validity to these claims?

MB: Hamas is fully committed to following the terms of the ceasefire. But there are some smaller factions and individuals – lacking direction and leadership – that are not. Hamas has actually taken steps to detain those found firing missiles on Israel from the Gaza Strip.

There is a big difference between Hamas launching a missile salvo at targets in Israel and one of these rogue groups or individuals firing off a couple of rockets. Egypt has requested that Israel distinguish between the two and respect the terms of the tahdia in order to make progress on subsequent phases of the agreement.

IPS: Hamas, for its part, complains that the Gaza Strip’s borders with Israel and Egypt are still closed to passengers and goods. Why doesn’t Egypt open the Rafah terminal, the only crossing along its 14-kilometre border with the strip, on a permanent basis?

MB: According to the terms of the tahdia, Israel’s six border crossings with Gaza should be gradually opened. As for the Rafah crossing with Egypt, it is currently being opened to limited traffic both ways, including medical patients and students and workers travelling abroad.

But there is no mechanism for permanently opening the Rafah crossing except for a border protocol signed in 2005 between the PA and Israel. Any opening of the Rafah crossing, on a permanent and continuous basis, must be in accordance with the 2005 protocol.

IPS: The Egypt-brokered tahdia only applies to the Gaza Strip. Is Israel exploiting the ceasefire there to move against resistance elements in the PA-controlled West Bank?

MB: In order to encourage the success of the tahdia in Gaza, Israel should refrain from all provocative actions in the West Bank. Unfortunately, Israeli military incursions into the West Bank have become a daily occurrence.

These aggressive policies – which also include construction of the ‘security wall’, a policy of assassination, and the maintenance of roadblocks throughout the West Bank – will not contribute to the success of the tahdia. Israel must work on building a degree of mutual trust with the Palestinian side in order to revive the stalled peace process and move on to final-status negotiations.

IPS: Egypt is currently attempting to mediate a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas involving the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Palestinian resistance factions in 2006, in return for a number of Palestinian prisoners. Has there been any progress on this front?

MB: Egypt is currently working on a prisoner-exchange proposal that would call for the release of Shalit in return for about 450 Palestinian prisoners currently held by Israel, including those convicted of ‘high crimes’ by Israeli courts.

Israel, however, has approved only 71 of the proposed names, refusing to release those considered to have ‘Israeli blood on their hands’. Nevertheless, Israel has said it would ‘study’ the release of the rest once Shalit was freed.

Egypt is continuing to make efforts to overcome these obstacles and arrive at a mutually acceptable prisoner exchange. It would certainly be in the interests of both Israel and Hamas to conclude such an agreement.

IPS: Since last November’s Annapolis peace conference in the U.S., Abbas has been holding negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with the stated aim of reviving the U.S.-sponsored road map peace plan. Do these talks, which have so far failed to make any breakthrough, have any chance of success?

MB: For the Abbas-Olmert talks to succeed, Israel must implement its commitments under the first phase of the road map.

First, it must pull back to the borders of Sep. 28, 2000 (after which Israel reoccupied much of the West Bank following the launch of the al-Aqsa Intifadah). This means the withdrawal from 42 percent of the West Bank in accordance with the (1993) Oslo Agreements.

Secondly, it must cease all settlement activities on occupied Arab land and halt its policy of assassination. Thirdly, Israel must allow for the free passage of goods and people into and out of the Palestinian territories.

Israel must meet these conditions if it wants to maintain the current ceasefire and begin eventual final status negotiations with the Palestinian side.

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