Egypt Can Be A Peacemaker In Gaza

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For a fifth day, Israeli jets and assault helicopters pounded Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. Egypt borders one side of Gaza and could play an important role in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Scott Lasensky of the U.S. Institute of Peace, talks with Steve Inskeep about what Egypt can do to help establish peace in the Gaza Strip.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. We're going to focus next on a country that's been thrown into an awkward spot. It's the only nation besides Israel that borders the Gaza Strip. Egypt negotiated a truce last summer between Israel and Hamas, the group that controls Gaza.

Now that Israel is bombing Hamas, Egypt does not want the troubles spilled over the border. To help explain Egypt's complicated role we brought in Scott Lasensky of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

Would you just give me an idea of some of the basics here? What is Egypt's relationship with Israel and what is its physical relationship with that little bit of territory called Gaza?

Mr. SCOTT LASENSKY (U.S. Institute of Peace): Yeah. Egypt has long-standing ties in Gaza. First, it's not that long ago, just a half century ago that Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip - for about 20 years.

INSKEEP: It's right next door to Egypt, there.

Mr. LASENSKY: It's on their border, in Sinai. In fact, the movement Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement which now controls Gaza, sees as its inspiration an Egyptian Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

INSKEEP: On the other side I suppose there are the diplomatic ties between Egypt and Israel, they're about as strong as with any Arab country, right?

Mr. LASENSKY: Well, you know Israel and Egypt, that's the key relationship in the larger Arab-Israeli setting, Egypt and Israel fought several wars, they signed a peace agreement in 1979. Now, that agreement itself is the heart of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and certainly for Egypt, its peace with Israel is of tremendous strategic importance.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the way that that all boils down to the Gaza Strip. Hamas is in control of that area, Israel is not happy, has essentially cut off all trade. What is Egypt's role been?

Mr. LASENSKY: You know, Egypt right now is faced between several pressures to clamp down and to maintain the border between the Egyptian-Sinai and Gaza, to remain it very tightly controlled and sealed, as well as counter pressures to open up. The pressures to clamp down and keep a tight control are, you know, numerous, starting with the peace treaty with Israel, the prospect of chaos in Sinai with thousands of Palestinians maybe trying to flee from Gaza into Sinai.

INSKEEP: Or because they're hungry or because they're being bombed or any number of other things.

Mr. LASENSKY: For reasons of security first and foremost, as well as, you know, economic and other pressures. There's the question of Islamist politics. Hamas is an Islamist political movement, the Egyptian regime is secular. They don't want Islamist politics to strengthen at home in Egypt.

And then fourth, and this is really the big question, the long term question. There are many in Israel who are looking to essentially turn the Gaza problem over to Egypt. They'd like to reestablish the humanitarian corridors, not through Israel, they would like to redirect that through Egypt, and essentially make Gaza Egypt's problem. And the Egyptian regime is obviously not interested in turning the Israeli-Palestinian and the Israeli-Gaza dispute into an internal Egyptian matter.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's some expression of Egypt's ambivalence when you look at the actual condition of the border. This is not so long ago, NPR's Eric Westervelt, was standing there and described what he saw this way.

(Soundbite of construction equipment)

ERIC WESTERVELT: There are literally hundreds, perhaps a thousand, tents strung out all along the border across several miles. Each tent represents a tunnel that all day every day is hauling goods across from Egypt, everything from small refrigerators to cattle, to cigarettes, to gasoline.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt not long ago. So this is a formally closed border, but is it really an open border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip?

Mr. LASENSKY: Well, you know, there's been a lot of questions that have been asked, not just this week, but in the past year or two about Egypt's role in the Sinai, and the tunnels, and the smuggling, and are they doing enough.

An Egypt maybe tolerating that partly to deal with these dramatic and intensifying public pressures to be in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, and to be on the side of helping them rather than standing with Israel.

INSKEEP: Does Egypt have any leverage in this situation to influence Israel, or for that matter Hamas?

Mr. LASENSKY: Egypt has influence with the Palestinians and with Israel. Let's not forget it's Egypt that brokered the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the six month ceasefire that expired December 19th. So we owe some debt of gratitude to Egypt for stepping in. I think a lot of questions need to be asked today and going forward. Who was working on keeping that ceasefire in the days preceding its expiration?

INSKEEP: Weren't the Egyptians also a channel between Israel and Hamas, they're the way that messages are passed back and forth.

Mr. LASENSKY: Yeah. It's primarily Egypt that both the Israelis turn to and the Hamas leadership turns to to talk, these are parties that acknowledge each other's existence.

INSKEEP: Oh because they refuse to talk, but this is the way they can talk.

Mr. LASENSKY: And that's important. Certainly Israeli value Egypt, they don't have a direct channel, and Hamas apparently, as history has shown us, also needs to talk to Israel, even if indirectly.

INSKEEP: Does Egypt have the power, were it to be active enough, to force one side or the other to change its behavior?

Mr. LASENSKY: No. There's no single actor, whether it's Israel, Hamas, Egypt, the U.S. - nobody has a sort of light switch ability to turn on or off the violence. Egypt certainly has a lot of influence, and unlike Israel, it has an open channel to the Hamas leadership. And that's why Egypt is so critical to the U.S. because the U.S. has no channels to the Hamas leadership.

INSKEEP: Scott Lasensky is co-author of a book called, "Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace." Thanks very much.

Mr. LASENSKY: Thank you.

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