Sunday, May 18, 2008

Arguing About Rafah

I just listened to an hour long TV slugfest between two Arab protagonists that was so intense it left my head spinning. Palestinian activist Ibrahim Hamami in London and Egyptian professor Jihad Audah in Cairo were arguing about Egypt ’s unwillingness to open the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza . You might remember that a few months ago thousands of Palestinians stormed the border into Egypt at the town of Rafah . Egypt is determined this will not happen again.

In the midst of ad hominem personal attacks “I can’t believe you are a university professor” and “I can’t believe you are sitting up there in London rather than in Gaza with your people”, each man tried to outshout the other. Audah argued that border agreements had been reached by the major parties involved, including the Egyptians, Americans, Israelis and the Palestinian government of Mahmud Abbas. Why should Egypt risk its security by opening the border to the renegade Hamas government in Gaza ? There were other Israeli-controlled borders the Palestinians could go through if they wanted access to Egypt .

Hamami countered that the Palestinians posed no threat to Egyptian security, and the Abbas government was not an honest representative of the Palestinian people. He thought Egypt should bypass all the other parties and reach a direct border agreement with the people living in Gaza .

There were a lot of things that struck me about what was both said and left unsaid by the two men. Here are three of them:

1. They used nuances to avoid real communication. When Hamami claimed that Audah could not point out one example of a Palestinian threatening Egyptian security, the Egyptian responded by noting the tunnels dug under the border which are notorious for weapons smuggling from Egypt into Gaza. Rather than discuss the tunnels, Hamami ignored the issue. His unstated assumption was that since the weapons were intended for use against Israel , they posed no security problem for Egypt .

2. Audah was unwilling to state that Egypt shares major economic interests with Israel , including long-term multi-billion dollar natural gas agreements, that are stronger than Egypt ’s willingness to go against Israel and provide assistance for the Palestinians in Gaza . No Egyptian would ever publicly admit this, but it is true.

3. Hamami sees Israel as the enemy that is determined to harm the Palestinian people at any cost. He’s mad at the Egyptians, but he’s really angry at the Israelis. I know it's a popular view held by most Palestinians and supporters, but I just don’t see it that way. I think the key to peace is a major change of heart by the Palestinians and not the Israelis. I believe a sincere move towards peace by the Palestinians would be met in kind.

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