‘The Palestine Cables’: Head of Egypt’s military council was seen as ‘obstacle’ to Israeli blockade of Gaza

This article originally appeared in Mondoweiss:

WikiLeaks has partnered up with the Israeli newspapers Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth and the Lebanese outlet Al Akhbar to release over 6,000 State Department cables on Israel. A series of posts on the new cables will be published in Mondoweiss in the coming days as part of the “Palestine Cables” feature.  Read the whole series here.

Israel knows who it likes in Egypt–Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief–and who it doesn’t, like the current head of the ruling Egyptian Higher Military Council Mohamad Hussain Tantawi.

Haaretz publishes a report on a cable detailing Israel’s complaints about Tantawi:

IDF officers complained to their American counterparts in November 2009 that Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s defense minister at the time and the current leader of the ruling military council, was “an obstacle” to the efforts to counter arms smuggling to Gaza through Sinai. The comments came during a meeting held as part of U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue.

The significance of the cable lies in what it may portend for the future of Egyptian-Israeli relations in the post-Mubarak era.  Publication of the cable comes in the midst of the most heavy Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip since “Operation Cast Lead,” and a large Palestine solidarity demonstration in response at the Israeli embassy in Giza, Cairo.

The ongoing demonstration at the embassy reflects the Egyptian populace’s overwhelming opposition to the Israeli occupation and the siege of Gaza.  But under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has been Israel’s chief regional partner in enforcing the crippling four-year-long blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Since Mubarak’s overthrow in February, a looming question has been to what extent the Egyptian government and military would continue to enforce a blockade that the vast majority of their population detests.  The cable makes clear that there is some tension between the Egyptian and Israeli militaries.

What that may mean for the blockade of Gaza remains to be seen, but there have been mixed signals so far from Egypt’s military.  While a delegation calling itself “Tahrir 4 Gaza” managed to bring in a symbolic bag of cement–the “first bag of cement not approved by Israel” and that hadn’t come through smuggling tunnels, according to a press release–the delegation had to contend with a recalcitrant Egyptian military.  Posts by activists on tahrir4gaza.net claimed that the military, beforehand, pressured them to “reschedule the event,” and that authorities warned bus companies against transporting delegation members to the border.

Currently, only 300 Palestinians are allowed to leave Gaza daily through the Rafah crossing, and the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency reported March 6 that “getting out of Gaza is harder than ever.” The agency stated that the “blacklist” — Palestinians who are banned from entering Egypt — “has got longer since the Egyptian revolution, quashing hopes that the new regime would lift the siege.”

I recently spoke with Nadia Hijab, senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, to get her take:

Israel has been hoping to rid itself of responsibility for Gaza for “a long time now, and I would think that the military would be very aware of that,” said Hijab. “The military will probably walk a fine line between loosening up the blockade without inheriting Gaza.”

Noura Erakat, a Palestinian attorney and analyst, had this to say on the future of the blockade:

“Given the considersations that this new regime will have, and the threats that it will face, it can’t [decide to lift the blockade] in a vacuum.” Those threats include Israel’s powerful military as well as the possibilities of strict conditions on or cuts to U.S. military aid. The worst-case scenario, according to Erekat, could be Israeli forces threatening to police the border themselves on the Egytian side.

The cable on Tantawi isn’t conclusive at all.  But if things weren’t smooth sailing between Israel and Egypt’s respective military commands in 2009, what will happen now if a truly democratic Egypt asserts itself in the region and charts a somewhat more independent course?

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