For whom the bell tolls

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

Philip Whitfield

No man is an island, wrote the English poet John Donne (1572 – 1631). Entire of itself, every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.

Nothing brings home Donne’s wisdom more than the killing in Eilat last Thursday and the consequences.

The gunmen who initiated the attacks allegedly crossed from Egypt into Israel near the Ein Netafim water spring, the border between the British and Ottoman empires.

Eight Israelis were killed and more than a dozen injured when, according to Israeli spokesmen, affiliates of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) in Gaza wearing military vests and armed with assault rifles, RPGs, roadside bombs and bomb belts, crossed into Israel. Eyewitnesses to the initial attack said the perpetrators wore what looked like Egyptian police uniforms.

Israel Border Police on one side of Highway 12 and the Egyptian army on the other bear joint responsibility for security along the border. About 20 percent of the 6,000-strong Border Police are in Jerusalem. The rest serve in the countryside, Arab townships and rural areas. They include professional soldiers and some volunteers.

There are four special units: Yaman formed for counter-terror and hostage rescue; Yamas for counter-terror undercover work; Yamag for tactical counter-crime and counter-terror rapid deployment and Matilan for intelligence gathering and infiltrations interception.

One of those killed was “The Fox” Yaman’s French-born top gun, 49-year-old Chief Warrant Officer Pascal Avrahami an immigrant since 1977 who lived with his wife and three kids in Jerusalem. Avrahami flew to the scene in a helicopter. He shimmied through the rear window of one of the buses at the scene and was cut down in a firefight.

It is an egregious mistake to pin the blame on Egypt for this attack. By its own admission, Israel had intelligence the attack would take place and they had anti-terror units in the vicinity. The officer commanding Israel’s southern region Major General Tal Russo said that security forces had been on high alert for terror attacks coming from Sinai to Israel.

A senior officer in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said Israel’s security agency the Shin Bet had obtained intelligence about the attack several days earlier. For that reason the Yaman as well as additional IDF units were already deployed along the border nearby the attack.

The IDF spokesman confirmed that Egypt played its part in the mopping-up operation, killing two of the attackers.

General Sami Enan, Egypt’s army chief of staff and second in command on the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is investigating the deaths of five Egyptian militia on the border after the attacks. A military official told the official MENA news agency on Thursday night they were accidentally killed by Israeli helicopter fire aimed at fleeing militants.

But on Friday, Al-Ahram newspaper quoted a military official as saying the Egyptian policemen were killed by gunmen trying to slip in from Israel. Enan’s investigation was announced shortly after another policeman was declared dead after a border gunfight on Friday, which left one of his comrades gravely wounded with a bullet in the head.

I was a battlefield reporter in this part of the world before I covered the Vietnam War, the war in Angola and the first Gulf War. I’ve had my fair share of close shaves. A colleague was killed by a wire-guided missile in the car behind me in Quneitra being fought over in 1973. I’ve been strafed and knocked on the head with rifle butts a time or two.

The skirmishes are always complex to sort out when bullets are flying and you’re in the thick of it.

What is certain is that Eilat has put the Palestinian issue squarely on the plate of those Egyptian politicians who seek office in the new era.

To date, the elections are being contested on domestic issues. That is inexcusable. Historically the two issues that have dominated the Middle East for 60 years are the consequences of the exploding population and the status of Palestine. If these two don’t top the list of presidential candidates’ priorities, they aren’t worth supporting.

On the first, it is imperative that candidates produce coherent plans to provide affordable food, free healthcare, free education and proper jobs for young people. They shouldn’t be allowed to procrastinate or be ambiguous. Voters need to know their plans, the cost and the timeline.

Resolving the Palestine dilemma is as tortuous. First, Egypt must decide the role it should play. There are several options, among which are: Egypt could invest political capital in negotiating direct with Israel to agree the terms of a final solution, which it could put to the Palestinians.

Egypt could continue to find the common ground that would end the fractious relationship that divides the Palestinians.

Egypt could close the Rafah crossing once and for all and leave the Palestinians in Gaza locked up. Or open it. Whatever is decided, the policy of Egypt towards Israel/Palestine should be part of the political debate before the elections.

That includes border security. It’s clear the restrictions imposed by Israel as part of the Camp David accords regulating the number of forces Egypt may deploy in the Sinai are insufficient.

Emad Gad, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies asked on August 12: How did 3,000 armed fundamentalists enter Egypt, some of whom are members of Al-Qaeda, arriving fresh from fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

At the time Gad was referring to the attack on a police station in al-Arish “by an extremist fundamentalist group who follow al-Qaeda’s ideology.” He made the point that the information was provided by an official source and not censored out of the papers.

Gad wrote: Who is behind the return of these fighters and who gave them permission to enter? These are many questions that remain without clear or convincing answers in an era of political and security flux.

Who indeed? When John Donne wrote No Man is an Island, his meditation concluded:

Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in Mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based commentator.


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