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The Wall came tumbling down

Andrea Laidman | Thursday, January 31, 2008

On Jan. 23, Hamas militants destroyed several large stretches of a seven-mile barricade between Egypt and Gaza, erected by Israel before Hamas came into power last year. Many journalists have referred to the barricade as “Gaza’s Berlin Wall,” a parallel they continued to draw last week.

However, the differences – not vague similarities – between the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the “fall” of the Gaza border fence are the most important part of the story unfolding in the Middle East.

The Berlin Wall fell as a step toward consensus in Germany and as a sign of public desire for unity. The fence intended to keep Palestinians in Gaza and most everything else out was brought down, with the help of blow-torches and explosives, out of desperation from within.

Reporters on the ground in Gaza and Egypt last Wednesday described the movement of tens of thousands of Palestinians in and out of the border city of Rafah as a major shopping spree for food and medicine (any movement in or out of Gaza had been prohibited by Israel for more than a week, punishment for rocket attacks on southern Israel). Rather than stop the flow of people or even attempt to direct the crowds, Egyptian soldiers stood aside, reportedly smiling, letting the Palestinians pass. Necessities like sugar for baking and cement for building homes, which are scarce in Gaza and absurdly expensive when and where available, were being lugged back across the border openings in huge quantities.

Some officials in Hamas called the events last Wednesday the beginning of the end of Gaza’s isolation. A senior Hamas political advisor in Gaza said, “Actually it’s more than just looking for medical or food supplies, it’s something like a sense of relief, a sense of freedom.”

These Hamas officials predict a new dynamic in political policies surrounding Gaza, a moral victory for Palestinians and Hamas, and a blow to U.S.-Israeli policy. Hamas also hopes the breakdown at the border will spur a new dialogue with Egypt that will create an arrangement other than re-sealing the Gaza strip.

These sentiments serve to align the events of last week with the effects of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the reality is that neither Israeli nor Egyptian officials are viewing the breach of the border in this light.

The contrast with Berlin comes to a head in this point: the fall of the wall in Gaza does not indicate decades of conflict coming to an end, but, it seems, decades of conflict escalating further still.

The reaction from Israeli government officials was not the desire to work with Palestinians, but either to seal off Gaza and wave off any responsibility for its residents, or to invade and renew their authority over the territory.

The Israeli deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, called the rush of Palestinians across the border an opportunity for Israel to “disconnect” from Gaza.

“We need to understand that when Gaza is open to the other side we lose responsibility for it. So we want to disconnect from it. We want to stop supplying electricity to them, stop supplying them with water and medicine, so that it would come from another place,” Vilnai said.

That place would likely be Egypt, where Israel (and indeed, the U.S.) was throwing responsibility for restoring security and closing the border, and where officials like Vilnai would like to see the burden of Gaza re-positioned.

But while Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassam Zaki said that the border would be open “as long as this is a humanitarian crisis,” Egyptian officials have been clear about their intention to re-seal the border-and not to develop any new or cooperative relationships with Hamas.

Meanwhile, the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, spoke of considering a major invasion of Gaza.

“Probably we will find ourselves there,” Barak told the Associated Press. “We are not rushing to reconquer Gaza, but we will not remove any option from the table when it comes to the security of our citizens.”

In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino characterized the blockade as a means of self-defense for Israel, who she said was also committed to preventing a humanitarian crisis. She called Hamas the “genesis of the problem.”

“The blame for this problem can be laid squarely at the feet of Hamas,” Perino said, stating last Wednesday that the political group sends “upward of 150 rockets a day into Israel.”

The perception of Hamas on the ground at the border openings was quite the opposite. “This is the best thing Hamas has ever done” was the resounding anthem of the day, repeated by Palestinian citizens.

One woman told a New York Times reporter, “We thank Hamas for this. I’m a Palestinian, not Fatah or Hamas. But I thank Hamas. This is the best thing they have done.”

This range of reactions and conflicting intentions demonstrate that the day “Gaza’s Berlin Wall fell” was not like its supposed historical precedent. That does not mean, however, that 1989 Berlin has no lessons to offer the U.S., Egypt, Israel and Palestine in dealing with the question of what to do next in Gaza. Rather than attempt to parallel what has happened, all players must turn to what is needed today. The answer is not dissimilar from what the world needed a dose of in 1989: multilateral cooperation, international unity, and practical hope for the future.

Andrea Laidman is a senior political

science and peace studies major. Her

column’s title recalls advice given to John Adams by his wife, Abigail: “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” She can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer