Palestinians Enter Egypt After Border Smash

The inability of the Palestinian Authority to police themselves spread into Egypt overnight.

Palestinians Enter Egypt After Border Smash (AP)

Hundreds of angry Palestinians streamed into Egypt on Wednesday after militants with stolen bulldozers broke through a border wall, and two Egyptian troops were killed and 30 were wounded by gunfire in the rampage. About 3,000 Egyptian Interior Ministry troops who initially had no orders to fire swarmed the border but were forced to withdraw about a half-mile, said security forces Lt. Sameh el-Antablyan, who announced the casualties. Gen. Essam el-Sheikh said Egyptian forces later began firing back.

The scene was one of utter chaos. An Egyptian armored vehicle was burning and hundreds of Palestinians could be seen crouched in farm fields just inside Egypt. The militants’ rampage through the southern Gaza town of Rafah underscored the growing lawlessness in Palestinian towns, especially in Gaza, and represented the most brazen challenge to the authority of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Earlier, the Egyptian troops fired tear gas and shot into the air. A witness said three Palestinians were injured — one seriously, when a troop carrier crushed him against a wall. Police imposed a curfew on the Egyptian side, all shops were closed, and authorities cut electricity, plunging the scene in near total darkness.

Abbas, who has condemned the chaos, has been unable to impose order, and his failure to keep the gunmen in check is expected to harm Fatah’s prospects in Jan. 25 parliament elections.

The continued inability of Abbas to maintain basic law and order, combined with the sudden departure of Ariel Sharon from the scene, does not bode well for the decades long Palestinian problem. Haaretz’ Aluf Benn writes,

The collapse of Sharon’s health leaves Israel in a strange situation: Vice Premier Ehud Olmert is heading a transitional government on the eve of elections. The ruling party, Kadima, has no institutions or organizational structure, and it is not clear how a replacement for Sharon will be chosen. The race for prime minister, which until Wednesday looked like Sharon’s one-man show, is now open.

In any event, Israel is expecting a generation shift in its upper echelons, after five years of stability of the Sharon leadership. This was stability that the Israeli public liked, and, according to the polls, wanted to maintain.

Sharon was hospitalized at a time when his standing at home and abroad was at a peak, following the successful implementation of the disengagement plan. World leaders, who had kept their distance in the past, were convinced that he was the only one who could move ahead with the diplomatic process or another withdrawal in the territories. A change in leadership will turn Israeli politics into a giant riddle, and undoubtedly spark concern and consideration around the world.

Time’s Tony Karon is even more ominous:

The impact of Sharon’s departure from the Israeli and wider Middle Eastern political stage could be as great as that of his erstwhile nemesis, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who died in 2004—although in profoundly different ways. Israeli is a well-established democracy, after all, and will suffer nothing like the ever-deepening disarray that has plagued Palestinian politics since Arafat’s death. Sharon ruled on the basis of an elected parliamentary majority, and his replacement will be chosen on the same basis. And yet it is striking how, in recent months, Sharon has managed to break the mold of Israeli politics and initiate a realignment based on politicians’ abandoning traditional party loyalties and lining up behind the old general’s vision. His unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, the security wall he has built to secure Israel and the West Bank possessions it claims, and the expectation that a similar unilateral withdrawal would eventually occur in the West Bank as well are not part of any political party’s standing program, nor of any treaty or “road map.” They reflect Sharon’s own vision of a peace concluded without the participation of the Palestinians, based on his long-held premise that “there is no Palestinian partner,” and that Israel’s best interests are served by unilaterally—and occasionally in consultation with the U.S.—resolving the problem of the occupation on its own terms. When his own Likud Party balked, he simply formed a new party, Kadima, supremely confident in his personal standing with the electorate.

Sharon has long been viewed by friend, foe and mediator as uniquely positioned to achieve a disengagement with the Palestinians, on the basis of his unrivaled credentials as a warrior, a champion of the settler movement and a politician of the most hawkish stripe. Kadima, formed only two months ago, has attracted support from both sides of the aisle, but it was always premised on the fact that Sharon himself is far more popular with the electorate than any of Israel’s major political parties, and that his own vision as a custodian of Israeli security carries more support than the political manifestos of either Likud or Labor. Kadima is a one-man show, and although formal succession presents no problems, he has no obvious political heir. Olmert can take over the job of Prime Minister, and former Labor chieftain Shimon Peres can continue to stump for Sharon’s vision. But neither of these men, nor any of the others who’d thrown in their lot with Arik Sharon, possesses anything remotely close to Sharon’s political authority and support in an increasingly fractured Israeli electorate.

The bowing out of the old warhorse, therefore, will likely leave behind an even more confused political landscape unlikely to produce a decisive winner next time Israel votes. It remains possible that the Labor Party and the centrists and former Likudniks who lined up behind Sharon’s plan could find agreement to take it forward, although without Sharon’s unimpeachable credentials with much of the Likud’s traditional voting base (notwithstanding the hostility of its leadership to his plan), it remains to be seen whether they could achieve the same degree of consensus among the electorate over how far Israel should go.

Instead, Sharon’s expected departure will leave an epic vacuum, precisely because so much of what his government has achieved in recent years—defeating the Palestinian intifada, rolling back the Oslo Accords, and achieving U.S. consent for a once unthinkable set of unilateral actions to redraw the de facto borders between Israel and the Palestinians—carries his personal signature. In keeping with a longstanding Middle Eastern tradition, a single leader’s physical collapse has left that which seemed set in stone only days ago suddenly appearing distinctly fluid.

This is a time for Abbas and company to prove that they are grown-ups capable of running a state. I would not bet much that they will pass that test.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. legion says:

    I think Tony Karon’s behind the curve – it looks very much like there’s _already_ an enormous vacuum, and all the worst elements are rushing to fill it in. I really hope someone sane grabs the reins in Israel, or this will get very bad, very quickly. Although I am pleasantly surprised at the restraint the Egyptians have show so far – I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see them just start shooting at anyone who looks like they’re not on the right side of the border…

  2. Anderson says:

    OT, but recalling the post a while back about Sunni/Shiite relations from some TCS guy, this bit from Marty Peretz seemed of interest:

    The gruesome Sunni killings of Shia go on and on. They went on today when some 50 innocents were murdered at prayer in Karbala. The truth is that there is no outrage or even polite disapproval from the Sunni world where this bloodlust nests. It is a fact of life, and we are by now accustomed to thinking it immutable. Like Sunni Palestinians kill Israeli Jews, Sunni Arabs also kill Shia Arabs. But in much greater numbers. After all, the latter are infidels. So why not?

    Peretz, of course, has his axe to grind, but his thesis is open to refutation: where’s the evidence that Sunnis in the Mideast are upset at the murders of Shiites?

  3. paladin says:

    I’m not clear as to why the Palestinians busted into Egypt—-just because they could?

  4. Jonk says:

    I was wondering the same thing, Paladin.

  5. Herb says:

    This confirma my long time belief, that the palinistians are not happy unless they are killing someone.