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Egypt and Palestine

Published : Feb 12, 2010 00:00 IST

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I READ with utmost interest your article entitled "Grim anniversary" (January 29). While we share the condemnation of the subhuman conditions in the Gaza Strip one year after the Israeli incursion, and your pinpointing the Israeli blockade as the source of such suffering, I would like to clarify a few points concerning Egypt's position with regard to the situation on its border with the Gaza Strip.

At the outset, I wish to refer to the historical role Egypt has played in supporting the Palestinian cause for many decades, not only politically and economically but also militarily. Egypt fought four wars in support of this cause. It was always in the forefront of countries backing the Palestinian issue and the need to achieve a just, permanent and peaceful settlement to the conflict along the lines of international resolutions and legalities guaranteeing the Palestinian right.

As for the present situation in Gaza, I wish to emphasise Egypt's leading role since the Israeli military attack in December 2008. Egypt not only condemned Israeli actions but also led the international efforts to bring an end to these atrocious acts. This culminated in Security Council Resolution 1860 in January 2009, which called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza leading to a full Israeli withdrawal, and the unimpeded provision throughout Gaza of food, fuel and medical treatment. This resolution specifically welcomed the Egyptian efforts, which reflects the extensive diplomatic work done by Egypt to end that situation. As a subsequent effort, Egypt hosted in Sharm El Sheik in March 2009 the International Conference for the Reconstruction of Gaza, in which India took part. As an outcome of the conference, international donors raised $4.5 billion.

As for your reference to the Rafah crossing issue, needless to say, Israel as an occupying force is totally responsible for the closure of the border gates linking it to Gaza and also bears the full legal responsibility - according to international law - for the wellbeing of the citizens under its occupation; hence, international efforts should continue to pressure Israel to reopen the closed gates.

The Rafah crossing is reserved only for individuals, and Egypt has been - since the start of the current stalemate - opening it regularly for the passage of individuals, humanitarian assistance, medical equipment and medicine. Other materials have to cross through the other six border gates under Israeli control.

Egypt's handling of the Rafah crossing comes under the ambit of a legal agreement signed in 2005 between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the European Union, which allows the passage of individuals under the supervision of European observers (this agreement has ceased to be in force since the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007). The Rafah crossing can once again be fully operational in the context of the reconciliation agreement negotiated by the two Palestinian factions, under the auspices of Egypt. This agreement was signed by the Palestinian Authority; unfortunately, to date Hamas has not signed it.

The most important issue related to the Rafah crossing and its opening is that recognising it as an international border will lead to a geographical division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and will split the Palestinian territories into two parts. It will also lead to a demographic and political partition that will harm the Palestinian cause in the worst possible way.

What is more dangerous is that it will ease the legal responsibility Israel has as an occupying force that has obligations in accordance with international law; the 1949 Geneva Convention specified the obligations that the occupying force has to maintain vis-a-vis the rights and welfare of the people under its occupation. Therefore, Egypt, while handling with sensitivity the issue of the Rafah crossing, is cognisant that any change in its status will have negative political, geographical, legal and demographic implications on the status of the Palestinian people, their land, and the future of their cause.

In reference to the turbulent passage of the "Lifeline 3 Convoy" led by British MP George Galloway to Gaza, I would like to clarify the fact that it was the third convoy of its nature organised by him and authorised to enter Egyptian territory. However, what happened to this third convoy was because the actions of its organisers were not in conformity with the regulations set by the Egyptian authorities for the crossing of such convoys through Egypt. Such regulations were previously made clear to Mr Galloway through two official notes sent to him by the Egyptian Embassy in London, one before the departure of the convoy in November 2009 and the other after the departure of the convoy in December 2009 and before its arrival in Egypt. These two notes confirmed the mechanism specified by the Egyptian government and underscored the necessity of the entry of the humanitarian relief through Al Arish port (which is very close to the Rafah crossing). However,Mr Galloway disregarded the relevant regulations and directed the convoy through Jordan. It then proceeded to the port of Aqaba so as to enter Egypt through the port of Nuweiba, which is in the southern part of Sinai and far away from the Rafah crossing.

As for the issue of the Egyptian engineering works on the Egyptian side of the border side with the Gaza Strip, it should be seen, with no doubt, as a matter of national security and sovereignty as long it is on Egyptian soil. Moreover, the objective of such work is to protect Egypt against the continuous smuggling happening on its borders with Gaza. Thus, Egypt is only trying to protect its interests and national security without undermining its obligation and duty towards the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt has been allowing the passage of thousands of tonnes of medicine, medical equipment, food, and in addition it received hundreds of injured Palestinians in its hospitals and allowed the passage of Palestinian pilgrims during the Hajj season.

Finally, let me assure you that Egypt is fully aware of its ethical responsibility and commitment towards the Palestinian cause. At present, Egypt is also working with Palestinians, Israelis and the international community to launch a meaningful negotiation between the two parties covering the final status issues, namely, the status of refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, borders, water, and security. Moreover, Egypt will relentlessly pursue efforts towards achieving Palestinian reconciliation for restoring national Palestinian unity, which is the sole guarantor of a stable and prosperous Palestinian state living side by side with the state of Israel.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 12, 2010.)

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