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The hyped "Gaza state" in Sinai is a diversionary smokescreen

Even by their dreadfully low media standards, it was the most ridiculous attempt to mislead public opinion. Many viewed it as an insult to the Egyptian people's intelligence. The "it" to which I am referring is the exclusive story published in Al-Watan newspaper on 10 September. The offending report written by Usama Khalid claimed it had obtained documents and maps confirming an American-Israeli plot to establish a "Gaza state" in the Sinai. Since then, it has unleashed a flood of commentary; most without any attempt to critically examine the author's basic claim or the facts.

According to Al-Watan, the "new project" was drafted in Israel and proposed in secret by the US to European and Arab states, the most important of which were Qatar and Turkey. This, by itself, was enough to raise a red flag. For any and everyone knows that Saudi Arabia is the most important US Arab ally, so it seems rather odd that they were not consulted whereas the oft recalcitrant Qatar was.

The "new project", the author says, was the brainchild of Prof Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, a former rector of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The project seeks to solve the central issue of the Middle East without Israel having to make a single concession, entailing a three-way exchange of land between Egypt, Israel and Palestine.

The obvious aim of the article was to discredit the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas. Both movements have never concealed their objective is the total liberation of Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This has been a cornerstone of their political thought and conduct.

At the height of the 1936 uprising in Palestine, the Brotherhood's founder, Hasan Al-Banna, wrote in Al-Nazeer magazine [25/3/1937]: "Palestine is not the case of a specific geographical entity; it is rather the case of the Islam that you embrace; Palestine is an injured part of the Islamic body; any part that doesn't feel the pain and suffering of Palestine doesn't belong to that body or structure."

His words were not empty. One decade later, during the 1948 war, whereas seven Arab countries could only deploy 24,000 fighters in Palestine, Al-Banna in October 1947 pledged 10,000 members of his movement as a first contingent. When he approached the then Egyptian government to allow the volunteers to cross the border it refused.

The position of Hamas is equally clear. Central to its ideology is the belief that all of Palestine is Arab and Islamic land. Hamas' leader Khalid Meshaal recently wrote, "resistance to the Israeli occupation of our land is the strategic means of achieving our goal, which is liberation…"

This approach of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas to Palestine contrasts markedly to that of the first Nasserite government in Egypt. In June 1953 it agreed to an "American Sinai project", succumbing to huge international pressure and in order to avoid Israeli revenge attacks against Gaza or a war with Israel that it was not prepared for. The project aimed to resettle some 12,000 Palestinian families in north-west Sinai. The Palestinians, on their part, opposed the plan with mass demonstrations that continued until the project was finally dropped.

Needless to say, Israel has never given up on the idea of trying to resettle the Palestinian refugees and dissolve the Palestinian issue. The idea resurfaced in 2004 when Ariel Sharon proposed to withdraw from Gaza and his national security advisor, Giora Eiland, agreed on condition that the withdrawal is part of a larger plan. The latter proposed that Egypt concedes 720 sq kilometres of the Sinai extending along the Mediterranean coast from Rafah in the west to El-Areesh. In return, Egypt would get a piece of the south-west Naqab and be joined by land to Jordan by digging a canal ten kilometres long from east to west, five kilometre away from Ailat, under Egyptian sovereignty.

In April 2010 the Palestinian writer Bilal Hassan cautioned against this Israeli alternative to the two-state solution. Today, senior members of the incumbent Netanyahu government are openly denouncing the notion of a two state solution, in spite of on-going negotiations.

On a popular level, the Palestinian people have never ceased their opposition to the resettlement scheme. Indeed, throughout their six decades of forced exile they have rejected resettlement – tawteen – in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and of course, the Egyptian Sinai.

Earlier this year, on 29 March, Gaza's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, affirmed in a sermon that, "Our people especially those in Gaza are not looking for a place in the Sinai. Our people were the first to defeat the resettlement projects in Sinai."

In the case of Egypt's elected President Muhammad Morsi, all the evidence suggests that far from conceding any part of the Sinai he was actually seeking to implement a strategy for its development and security. Toward this end, a number of major investment projects in the Sinai were approved by the council of ministers with a total value of 4.4 billion Egyptian pounds.

That the media brouhaha over the so-called "new project" should coincide with the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is not fortuitous. It raises suspicion as to whether there is any acceptance of the idea in official Egyptian and Palestinian circles.

If any party is in need of such a project at this time it is Egypt's military junta. Entirely lacking international credibility and internal legitimacy, any overture that appeases Israel and the US would help to consolidate its rule. The Al-Watan report asserts Egypt would get major economic concessions from the US for implementing what is essentially the exchange of regional land. Under the circumstances, allegations of the Muslim Brotherhood's involvement in the scheme appear to be an attempt to find a scapegoat for what would be the ultimate betrayal of the Arab and Islamic nation.

With regard to Hamas and Gaza, one does not have to look far. The sudden influx of cash from the UAE into Egypt has been accompanied by the rise to prominence of the pro-Israeli agent provocateur, Muhammad Dahlan, in the Egyptian media. Since fleeing Gaza in 2007, hundreds of his loyalists have been stationed in the Sinai waiting for the opportunity to topple the Hamas administration.

Since becoming the frontline of resistance to the Israeli occupation, Gaza under Hamas' authority has become more of a strategic headache for the Israelis than it ever was. After fending off two all-out wars they have displayed a military capability well beyond the expectation of their adversaries, which allowed them to impose their own conditions for a ceasefire in 2012, with the support of President Morsi's government.

If Egypt's neo-Nasserites were really concerned about the future of Palestine they would do everything in their power to consolidate the resistance in Gaza. They would open the borders and allow the flow of food, medicine and everything else needed to develop the territory. But, after committing so many atrocities against their own people, it is all too understandable why their media should now create this diversionary smokescreen of a "Gaza state" in the Sinai. Everything that has taken place in the region since December 2010 gives hope that such demagogy will not fly.

AfricaCommentary & AnalysisEgypt
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