Gaza into Egypt

“This may be a blessing in disguise.” This is how an unnamed Israeli official greeted the destruction by Hamas of a chunk of the border barrier separating Gaza from Egypt, followed by an unregulated flood of hundreds of thousands of Gazan Palestinians across the border into Egypt. “Some people in the Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry and prime minister’s office are very happy with this. They are saying, ‘At last, the disengagement is beginning to work.'” Obviously, a broken border between Egypt and Gaza is a major security problem for Israel. But war matériel and money for Hamas crossed the border anyway. An open border effectively absolves Israel of responsibility for the well-being of Gaza’s population, and may prompt Israel to sever its remaining infrastructure and supply links to Gaza. A large part of the responsibility for Gaza would be shifted from Israel to Egypt, which might explain the satisfied murmurings in Jerusalem.

But the implications of the big breach go further. Given that Gaza and the West Bank are unlikely to be reunited, the question of Gaza’s own viability as a separate entity is bound to resurface. In the 1990s, economists talked about Gaza’s viability as a function of economics: massive investment could turn it into a high-rise Singapore. But in an article written back in the summer of 1991, a leading geographer argued that this wasn’t feasible, and that a viable Gaza would need more land. Most of it, he argued, would have to come from Egypt.

“Gaza Viability: The Need for Enlargement of its Land Base”—that was the title of an article by Saul B. Cohen, a distinguished American geographer and one-time president of Queens College and the Association of American Geographers. Cohen began with this basic assumption: a high-rise Gaza “would be ecologically disastrous… To become a successful mini-state, one that would serve as a ‘gateway’ or exchange-type state, Gaza will need additional land.” Cohen calculated that a viable Gaza would need about 1,000 square kilometers of territory—that is, an additional 650 square kilometers. This is how he mapped his proposal:

Egypt would provide a 30-kilometer stretch of Mediterranean coast (200 square kilometers), giving an expanded Gaza a total Mediterranean coast of about 75 kilometers. Egypt would also provide a stretch of the north Sinai plain (300 square kilometers), and Israel would kick in a parcel on its side of the border (150 square kilometers). This would be sufficient area, Cohen wrote, “to relieve Gaza’s overcrowding, provide for agricultural and natural land reserves, and spread urban activities (including small towns and hotels) to provide a unique, low-rise cultural landscape.” Egypt would provide water (by extending a Nile water canal from El Arish) and power (via a natural gas line). Cohen also believed that Israeli settlements at Gush Qatif “in the long run should be removed.” The long run didn’t take all that long.

The Oslo accords eclipsed the idea of a Gaza mini-state. Gaza was supposed to find its outlet in the West Bank, through a safe-passage corridor. The idea of an expanded Gaza was revived shortly before Israel’s unilateral withdrawal, by an Israeli geographer (and former rector of Hebrew University), Yehoshua Ben-Arieh. He proceeded from this assumption: a corridor to the West Bank would not suffice to relieve the pressure building up in Gaza. Gaza could only be viable if it became a crossroads or gateway, which would require a deep-water port, an airport, and a new city. Ben-Arieh proposed a three-way swap. The Palestinian Authority would be given 500 to 1,000 square kilometers of Egypt’s northern Sinai. Israel would give Egypt 250 to 500 square kilometers along their shared border at Paran, and would also give Egypt a corridor road to Jordan. On the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority would cede to Israel the same amount of territory (500 to 1,000 square kilometers) it received in Egypt. This is how Ben-Arieh mapped the southern part of his plan:

Ben-Arieh presented his idea and maps to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, who (according to Ben-Arieh) described the plan as premature, but didn’t reject it. “Maybe one day it can become an idea,” he reportedly said.

To anyone who knows the complexities of the politics, these plans look fantastic. But while geographers often miss the devilish details, they do have an appreciation of how tentative the map of the Middle East really is. It is a schematic representation of other forces, and if the strength of those forces changes, the map will ultimately show it. There were 350,000 Palestinians in Gaza in 1967. Now there are 1.3 million, who are pushing against the envelope of Gaza’s narrow borders with growing force. Israel has the power and the resolve to push back. Egypt just doesn’t, which is why the envelope burst where it did.

That pressure will not relent, and since Hamas seeks to channel it into a “right of return” on the ruins of Israel, which the United States says it rejects, the question is this: where does Washington propose to divert this pressure? Can its “peace process,” now focused entirely on the West Bank, divert any of it? Unless the White House can make water flow uphill, perhaps now is time to revisit the geographers’ alternatives, and honestly ask whether they’re more fantastic than the present policy.