Cutting off a vital connection
Palestinian officials were often more concerned with applying pressure to Hamas than easing the crisis in Gaza.
Senior Palestinian Authority officials expressed frustration that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were able to evade the tight Israeli siege of the territory by breaching the border wall and through tunnels to Egypt. One, Ahmed Qurei, even suggested to then Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in 2008 that Israel reoccupy the Gaza-Egypt border area to keep Gaza sealed and to help “defeat” Hamas.
These revelations appear in hitherto secret minutes of meetings involving Palestinian, Israeli and American officials leaked to Al Jazeera as part of The Palestine Papers.
Gaza, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, half of them children, has been under a tight Israeli siege since Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006. After the elections, the administration of US president George W. Bush orchestrated an international aid cut-off to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority and began to support militias loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction in the Gaza Strip which it hoped would challenge and defeat Hamas.
But in June 2007, Hamas ousted the US-supported militias and took full control of the interior of the Gaza Strip. Israel, along with Egypt, retaliated by tightening the blockade. Basic goods became scarce in the destitute territory, and people, including patients needing medical care, were often prevented from traveling or faced lengthy delays.
On 23 January 2008, Hamas blew up part of the border wall with Egypt near the Rafah border crossing. In the following days tens of thousands — some estimates say hundreds of thousands — of Palestinians poured into Egypt to buy food, fuel, medications and other goods that had become scarce or unaffordable in Gaza, or to meet friends and family stranded on the Egyptian side.
Many Palestinians celebrated the breach in the border wall as an act of justified resistance against the siege, which the International Committee of the Red Cross has condemned as “collective punishment,” a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
But Ahmed Qurei, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority and Abbas’ Fatah faction, was angered by the border wall breach and appealed for Israel to step in to reseal it. On 4 February 2008, Qurei along with Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erekat and Salah Ilayan met with then-Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni and adviser Tal Becker at the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem.
During a conversation about the border wall breach Livni asked Qurei, “Did the opening of the borders appear to be a victory for Hamas?”
Qurei, also known as Abu Ala, answered, “Yes, they appeared to have ended the siege.” Livni observed that the Egyptians “don’t do enough” to keep the border closed “and we’re sure they can do much more.”
At this point Qurei asked, “What can you do about Philadelphia Crossing?” He was referring to the Philadelphi Route — the name Israel gives to the 11 km long border line between Egypt and Gaza. When Livni pointed out that Israel had withdrawn its forces from the Philadelphi Route during its 2005 disengagement, Qurei answered, “You’ve re-occupied the West Bank, and you can occupy the crossing if you want.”
Livni asked Qurei, “We can re-occupy the Gaza Strip. What is your position?” Qurei answered, “Our strategic position is that we want a state in the West Bank and the [Gaza] Strip with a safe passage.” Qurei added:
“Hamas must not feel that it’s achieving daily victories, sometimes with Israel and sometimes with Egypt, and Al-Jazeera Channel praises these victories. I hope Hamas will be defeated, not militarily I mean because we didn’t try this; we didn’t engage in a civil war. President Abu Mazen [Abbas] was wise enough not to give orders to Fateh members to use arms, otherwise we’d have had many casualties.”
Control over the Rafah crossing by forces loyal to Abbas would represent a “defeat” for Hamas which, Qurei told Livni, “don’t work for their own interest but for the interest of Iran and sometimes Syria.”
While insistent the siege remain in place until the ousted Palestinian Authority could take control — even if it required Israel to enforce it by re-occupying the border area — Qurei told Livni that “Israel has to allow the entry of fuel and all basic goods” into Gaza.
Later in the conversation Livni asked regarding Hamas, “Is their dream to establish a state in Gaza?” “Yes,” Qurei replied, “and they will apply Islamic Shari’a and export their regime to neighboring countries,” Hamas leaders have stated repeatedly that they have no intention of establishing a state in Gaza and view it as an inseparable part of the occupied territories which include the West Bank.
Saeb Erekat added, “When you besiege the [Gaza] Strip and cut off electricity and you see them cry over a sick child in candlelight — this is kind of victory they’re seeking. They [Hamas] don’t care about the suffering of the people. What will destroy Hamas is for us to reach an agreement. They wager on our failure.”
On other occasions, however, Erekat expressed irritation that Palestinians were able to evade the siege through tunnels and that the Israelis and Americans weren’t doing enough to stop them. On 20 October 2009, Erekat met with US Middle East Envoy, former Senator George Mitchell at the State Department in Washington. Minutes of the meeting were revealed in The Palestine Papers.
Erekat told Mitchell: “Senator, I am just briefing you on my meetings with the Israelis. I am not giving you a message. They were good meetings. I told AG [Amos Gilad]: you are Egypt’s man. You know the Egyptians. 11 kms! What’s going on with you and the US, the $23 million and ditches – its business as usual in the tunnels – the Hamas economy… AG started laughing!”
Gilad, a reserve general in the Israeli army, is a senior defense ministry official and frequent interlocutor with Palestinian Authority figures including Erekat. In early 2008, the United States was reported to have delivered a $23 million aid package to Egypt to help seal the Gaza border. This aid included assistance from the US Army Corps of Engineers to Egypt to build an underground steel barrier meant to make it impossible for Palestinians to dig tunnels, as well as other above-ground fortifications.
In conjunction with the aid package, Israeli news website Ynet reported in March 2008 that Gilad “traveled to Washington … to speak with US officials about an arrangement with the Egyptians over the [Gaza] border fence.”
Erekat appears to have been unsatisfied with Gilad’s peformance in helping Egypt keep Gaza sealed. But it wasn’t the first time Erekat had voiced his concerns. At a 24 June 2007 meeting with the US General Keith Dayton, the US security coordinator for the occupied territories, Erekat complained, “Egypt is allowing the tunnels to continue.”
The tight closure of Gaza has remained in place even since Israel’s devastating three-week long invasion and bombardment of Gaza in Winter 2008-2009, which killed 1,400 people, injured thousands, and destroyed thousands of homes, public buildings and schools, as well as irrigation, electricity and sanitation infrastructure. Israel claims that the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups from smuggling in weapons. However conversations recorded in The Palestine Papers make clear that Palestinian and Israeli officials were often much more concerned with applying political pressure to Hamas.
International aid agencies have consistently reported that despite Israeli promises of “easing” the blockade, virtually no reconstruction supplies have entered Gaza since the Israeli attack and the flow of goods remains at a fraction of pre-siege levels. The tunnels, despite the efforts of Egypt and Israel to stop them, fully supported by PA officials, remain a vital connection to the outside world for many Palestinians trapped in Gaza.
Ali Abunimah is author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and is a contributor to the newly-released book The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict. He is a co-founder of the widely read online publication The Electronic Intifada, an award-winning online publication about Palestine and the Palestine conflict. He has written hundreds of articles on the question of Palestine for publications all over the world, including Al Jazeera.