The US administration of President Barack Obama was even more actively involved than previously known in enforcing the siege of Gaza along Egypt’s border with the territory. And the Pentagon provided direct assistance and technology for these efforts, a newly released official document reveals.
The US Embassy cable dated 8 April 2009 and released yesterday by Wikileaks is a briefing document for US Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY) – a hardline supporter of Israel – who was in Egypt to meet with officials. At the time, Lowey chaired an important congressional committee that oversees aid to Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Moreover, the cable shows that the Americans coordinated Egypt’s efforts to keep Gaza sealed from the outside world directly with Egyptian Army chief Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi – who is currently Egypt’s military ruler. Tantawi heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that has ruled Egypt since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last February.
This may help explain why, despite high hopes, Egypt has reneged on repeated commitments to lift the Gaza siege.
Promises to open Rafah crossing broken
Last April, Egypt’s post-Mubarak government agreed amid much media fanfare to reopen the Rafah crossing, the only link to the outside world for Gaza’s 1.6 million Palestinians that does not go through Israel.
Yet the new procedures were scarcely different from the old, highly restrictive ones, meaning that in effect there is no change at all, as The Electronic Intifada has reported.
As a result of the continuing hardship caused by the severe restrictions on Rafah, dozens of Arab and international organizations recently called on Egypt to end the siege, stop subjecting Palestinians to humiliating and harsh conditions, and open the border once and for all.
American and Egyptian collusion to make Gaza “go hungry”
The cable confirms that the siege of Gaza – including the ban on the entry of reconstruction supplies following Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” which killed more than 1,400 people – is political in nature. It was intended to force Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in January 2006, to allow the US-backed West Bank Palestinian Authority regime of Mahmoud Abbas to take back control of Gaza on its terms:
The Egyptians believe that Palestinian reconciliation is a prerequisite to delivery of the approximately $5 billion in Gaza reconstruction assistance pledged at the March 2 Sharm El Sheikh conference. Neither the Egyptians, nor the international community can work with Hamas as a partner on security, political or economic reconstruction issues; Rafah crossings will remain closed until the Palestinian Authority returns to operate the Gaza side of the crossing for normal business.
This adds to the existing body of evidence; a 2007 cable released in April revealed American summaries of discussions with top Egyptian officials about sealing the border with Gaza:
Meanwhile, the Egyptians continue to offer excuses for the problem they face: the need to “squeeze” Hamas, while avoiding being seen as complicit in Israel’s “siege” of Gaza. Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Soliman told us Egypt wants Gaza to go “hungry” but not “starve.”
It’s notable that American officials did not record that they voiced any objections to this language. Crucially, in the 2007 cable, the United States reveals “we have no intelligence to support Israeli claims that heavy weaponry moves through the tunnels.”
Deliberately denying the humanitarian needs of the population in an occupied territory is a war crime under the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, one that Israel has been committing with impunity. The cables show the extent to which Israel could rely on American and Egyptian officials as accessories in these crimes.
Pentagon helps enforce Gaza siege
The US Embassy sought to use Lowey’s visit as an opportunity to iron out some difficulties in implementing plans to close the Gaza tunnels:
Egyptian security forces continue to improve counter-smuggling efforts along the Gaza border and further afield, through increasing their security presence in northern Sinai and giving greater focus to preventing weapons from entering the Sinai. Egyptian officials claim to have identified and sealed over 100 tunnels since the beginning of the year, with new discoveries occurring daily. Recently arrived U.S.- supplied counter-smuggling equipment, once installed and fully operational, could help improve Egypt’s ability to fully exploit the tunnels and break up smuggling rings. The government has requested additional border security assistance and we are currently exploring ways to provide the requested assistance.
But the cable notes:
Installation of this new U.S.-supplied counter-smuggling equipment hit a snag in February, however, when the Minister of Defense [MOD] blocked the use of satellite technology to tune the equipment and complete the installation. DOD [US Department of Defense – known as the Pentagon] is designing a work around, but this may add 4-5 months to the time to complete the installation. At the same time, proper operation of the equipment also requires the use of GPS technology, to which the MOD has also objected, and we are still in conversation with them about that.
American pressure on Tantawi to do more to besiege Gaza
Finally the cable suggests talking points for Lowey to use in her meeting with Tantawi:
(SBU) General Tantawi: MOD objections to some of the technical elements of the U.S.-supplied border security equipment may delay installation by as much as four-five months.
–Thank the general for his cooperation on installation of anti-smuggling equipment.
–Express concern that delays to equipment installation will impede tunnel detection.
–Urge the general, in the meantime, to consider low tech measures to destroy main tunnels, such as using a backhoe [bulldozer] to dig them out.
This cable – as a preparatory briefing – does not reveal whether the meeting between Lowey and Tantawi took place or what was actually said, but there’s little reason to believe Tantawi would not have been receptive.
The earlier 2007 cable detailing American discussions with him claims:
In their moments of greatest frustration, Tantawi and [Mubarak’s intelligence chief Omar] Soliman each have claimed that the IDF [Israeli army] would be “welcome” to re-invade Philadelphi, if the IDF thought that would stop the smuggling.
“Philadelphi route” is the name Israel gave to the strip of land running the full length of the border between Egypt and Gaza.
That, incidentally, was an opinion shared by members of the Palestinian Authority. As the Palestine Papers, Ahmed Qureia, a top official of Mahmoud Abbas’ US-backed PA also wanted to Israel to re-invade parts of Gaza, so deep was the PA’s hatred for and rivalry with Hamas.
Given Tantawi’s direct role in enforcing the siege of Gaza all along, it is no surprise that Egypt continues to maintain it now that Tantawi is running the country, and Egypt continues to receive more than a billion dollars of US military aid every year.
Why did Egypt reimpose and maintain the siege days after announcing the full reopening of Rafah? US policy toward Gaza has not changed – punishing the population to harm Hamas and support the US-backed rulers in the West Bank remains Obama’s approach. But it may also be linked to the failed reconciliation between Abbas and Hamas which the Obama administration adamantly opposed when it was first announced in early May.
Whether the siege of Gaza will ever be lifted remains directly linked to the Egyptian people replacing the SCAF with real democracy. As Joseph Massad has pointed out, that will be no easy task in light of all the entrenching of SCAF’s power since February.