If Mohammad Dahlan is successful in bringing about the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, a strategic geopolitical change will occur which will render the Israeli isolation policy of Gaza anachronistic and irrelevant. The Dahlan- Hamas-Egyptian plan includes a passenger terminal and a new cargo terminal that may offer Gaza a chance at reconnecting to the rest of the world. Gaza needs to be reconnected to Israel and to the West Bank as well and through the West Bank to Jordan and the Gulf.
Israel decided to cut Gaza off from the world after Hamas won the parliamentary elections in Palestine in 2006 and solidified that policy of isolation after Hamas violently overthrew the Palestinian Authority security forces in June 2007. From that time until after Egyptian General Abdel Fattah Sisi led a military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood regime in July 2013, Gaza survived economically through a broad system of hundreds of smuggling tunnels – which also fed the economy of Sinai. The smuggling operations were so broad that virtually every product in demand could be brought into Gaza.
With the tunnels rose a new class of nouveau riche in Gaza who paid the Hamas officials substantial sums to allow their operations to thrive.
Hamas developed a Ministry for Tunnel Affairs and imposed taxes on the smuggling operations as well as allowing common citizens to lease tunnels on an hourly, daily, weekly or monthly basis. Over the past three years the Egyptians have closed down almost all of the smuggling tunnels and has continued to impose its own closure policy on Gaza, and Gaza’s isolation from the world has increased to unbearable levels.
If the Dahlan-Hamas-Egypt triangle leads to opening Gaza it will be the result of the desperate situation in Gaza, including the pressure applied by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and by Egypt on Hamas. Abbas’s pressure has led to the deterioration of public health including a decrease in the already limited hours of electricity.
Hamas has totally surrendered to Egyptian military demands to completely disengage from the Muslim Brotherhood, to radically change its political doctrine and to turn over tens of individuals to Egypt’s intelligence forces who had previously enjoyed clemency in Gaza.
Hamas is now entering into an agreement with former Fatah strongman Dahlan, who had been their sworn enemy until recently. Hamas leader Yahya Senwar and Dahlan grew up together in the Khan Yunis refugee camp and went their separate ways politically, but recently common rivals (mainly Abbas) and interests have apparently brought them together in a new alliance that has the potential to change the geo-strategic realities between Israel and Palestine.
If the alliance is successful, Dahlan will gain a foothold in Gaza and become directly involved in the border management between Gaza and Egypt.
Dahlan’s popularity will rise among Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank, at the cost of the shrinking legitimacy of Abbas and the PA. Dahlan will have a small window of opportunity to prove his worthiness to the Palestinian people. Palestinians, however, do not want a new leader crowned by Egypt or by anyone else. The Palestinian people want to return to the polls and to elect their own leaders.
Dahlan, if he rises in power, will only be perceived as legitimate if he is duly elected by the public in open and democratic elections. Many Palestinians have deep suspicions toward Dahlan, both because of his shady history and claims of corruption against him, and because of his rumored close relations with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman through their common shady friend and business ally Austrian Jew Martin Schlaff, who reportedly was a former agent of the infamous Stasi in East Germany and was allegedly engaged in less than clean business deals with both.
Dahlan denies both charges and claims his developing alliance with Hamas proves his commitment to ending Israel’s occupation and to the struggle for Palestine’s freedom. Hamas for its part claims that the alliance with Dahlan does not signal the demise of “resistance,” which it says will continue until Palestine is free. Hamas’s recent determination to improve ties with Egypt has led to direct confrontation between Salafi groups in Gaza aligned with Islamic State (ISIS) and other radical elements in Sinai. The south of Gaza has become a closed military zone with an enormous Hamas military presence patrolling the area and preventing any attacks against their own forces and against Egypt.
If in fact Dahlan obtains a role in controlling Gaza it could signal a new chapter in relations between the Strip and Israel. Through Egypt’s “good offices” and a potential improvement in the security climate (due to Egypt’s involvement) Israel could gradually allow the export of goods from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank. Israel will continue to control and monitor all goods going in and out at Israel-Gaza border crossings. Israel could also allow Palestinian workers from Gaza to return to work in Israel. All of these steps will improve the economic situation in Gaza which, most military experts believe, would have a positive impact on the public there. Israel could finally end its foolish and harmful isolation of Gaza.
It is important to recognize though that the problems of Gaza are not economic – they are political and are directly related to the continued non-resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Egypt is playing an important role, and increased Egyptian positive participation as we see in Gaza, and even in Lebanon, as has been reported, is good news for moving Israel and Palestine back into negotiations.
Jordan also has an important role to play in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace, as demonstrated by Jordan’s positive role in putting out the flames during the al-Aksa crises. That role was unfortunately damaged by the foolish behavior of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in receiving the Israeli guard who killed two Jordanian citizens in Amman as a hero. But Jordan is needed by both Israel and Palestine, and together with Egypt can step up and help to create what I have been calling for years: a regional quartet for stability, security and peace – Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
This regional framework is essential for all four players given the decreasing chances that the Trump administration can actually advance any genuine plans for peace. In any event, without changes in the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, the chances of a genuine renewed effort for peace are extremely slim. So, until then, the increased engagement of Egypt and Jordan is significant and important.
The author is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives. (www.ipcri.org)