Sunday, September 04, 2005

Solana is back from his holidays

And he has hit the ground running. Well, sort of. Straightaway he went to the Middle East to see if the EU could do a bit of meddling …. woops, sorry …. offer help that would lead to the implementation of the road map which might conceivably lead to some form of peace in the area but not as long as the EU keeps pumping money to the Palestinian Authority without ever bothering to find out what happens to it. (I expect the last bit did not figure high on Solana’s agenda.)

The EU Foreign Affairs High Panjandrum held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. The main point of discussion seems to have been the possibility of sending EU troops as border monitors between Gaza and Egypt. As the European Voice sums up:

“Following Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, which is due to be completed this month, the EU might send border monitors to assist the Palestinian Authority, as long as both sides agree.

But major obstacles remain to the plan. Diplomats said that EU involvement comes on the condition that a deal on customs is done between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt.

The plan also hinges on the EU being involved in negotiations on the text from the beginning.

There appears to be agreement between the parties that the Palestinians will be responsible for goods and people leaving the Rafah crossing in southern Gaza for Egypt.

But Israel still wishes to retain some control over entry into the strip because of security concerns.”

Unsurprisingly, the Israelis remain “doubtful that a complete takeover of customs and border duties by the Palestinian Authority would not reduce security”. Presumably, the Israelis are also aware of the EU’s tendency to overlook certain peccadilloes on the part of the PA and, indeed, Hamas. Another school bus blown up? Oh heck, boys will be boys.

So, it is not at all certain that there will be an agreement for the EU to move into the Gaza and supervise border security. A delicate situation, as one diplomat of unknown origin has described it.

As a matter of fact, it is all a bit more delicate even than Solana seems to realize. There appears to be an assumption among Western foreign policy circles that there are two sides only to the Palestinian problem. Well, two-ish, as it is not clear that the PA, Fatah and Hamas are all on the same side and Al-Qaeda has already threatened Abbas with all sorts of repercussions if he arrests any of its members in Gaza.

There are other participants as well. For example, when Secretary of State Rice made her now notorious statement after the Gaza withdrawals, assuring the Israelis that this was just the beginning and they will have to do a good deal more and forgetting to mention that the Palestinian organizations should do something as well, the first angry reaction came from … Jordan.

King Abdullah, who, incidentally was one of the first leaders to extend condolences to the United States and the people of the stricken areas and to offer help, was a little more annoyed last month.

According to DEBKAfile of August 21 [no longer available on the net]:

“In notes to US president Bush and Israeli PM Sharon over the weekend, the king warned that any further steps, including Israeli withdrawalsfrom West Bank territory, would be deemed violations of the 1995 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty - if coordinated only with Washington and the Palestinians. He stressed Jordan would not put up with aIsrael-Palestinian settlement that failed to address Jordan's sovereignty, its interests in the Jordan river basin and the border crossings and in shared strategic issues, such as security and water resources.”

In fact, most security negotiations in the area have had a major input from Jordan, something the State Department may have overlooked when providing the Secretary of State with her briefing.

The latest news is that King Abdullah is about to visit Jerusalem for talks with Prime Minister Sharon.

Jordan has always been worried at the break-down in security, should there be serious Israeli withdrawals. The appearance of Al-Qaeda terrorists in Gaza, the continued attacks on Israeli and other targets and the behaviour of the Hamas “warriors” are not conducive to calming fears. Of course, as the Palestinians seem to have forgotten, the King of Jordan has other ways of dealing with the problem.

As far as the EU and Gaza are concerned, there is yet another big player on the scene: Egypt and, for some reason, Solana does not seem to have talked to the Egyptian government or security services. A big mistake.

As agreed, Egypt has already taken over border control with Gaza. But it has also done a great deal more. Again, according to DEBKAfile of August 22 [quoted here in full]:

“A high-ranking 100-man Egyptian military delegation has taken de facto charge of Palestinian security forces in the Gaza Strip and is handling talks with Hamas to avert an outbreak of terrorist violence.

DEBKAfile's military sources report General Ibrahim Shukri heads the team of three Egyptian generals and several colonels and majors. The same general also led the probe of the October 15, 2004 al Qaeda Taba bombings. His appointment betokens Cairo's anxiety over the threat of al Qaeda terror infiltration of the Gaza Strip.

Our sources add that all Palestinian operations, including the deployment of 24 battalions in the evacuated territory are coordinated with Israel indirectly througha direct channel set b y by General Shukri and Israel's Shin Beit HQ.

A second Egyptian general, Muhammed Ibrahim, is in close communication with the Hamas to guard against wildcat action including gunfire on Israeli targets. General Mustafa Bakri has taken practical command of Palestinian security andintelligence units in Gaza.

The other members of the Egyptian team have divided Gaza into sectors and assumed command of the Palestinian battalions. They have installed their own communications and logistics networks in the Egyptian embassy building in Gaza. The high-powered Egyptian military presence has all but edged Palestinian chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his ministers out of the game.

Egyptian officers in command of the Palestinian units call the interior minister Nasser Yousef by the contemptuous Nasser Yuosif meaning Nasser the Sad Case or Mr. Useless. Israeli officers in dialogue with Palestinian opposite numbers check first with the Egyptian officers for their approval of agreements.

Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia visit to Damascus Sunday, Aug 21, was ordered by Gen. Bakri. He was told to persuade Syrian president Bashar Assad to force the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashal to let the Israeli pullout go through without interference.”

All of this activity makes one wonder whether the EU and its “foreign ministry” actually understands what is going on in the area. One cannot help agreeing with the American Enterprise Institute scholar David Frum that the Gaza pull-out may well have been a case of Sharon calling the West’s bluff.

He may have been successful. The West, especially the EU and its members, while castigating Israel, never really wanted or expected a swiftly concluded pull-out from Gaza. Now they are running around like headless chickens.


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