Inter Press Service (Reporting from Cairo), April 3, 2009 - Nine NATO member states agreed last month to utilise naval, intelligence and diplomatic resources to combat the alleged flow of arms into the Gaza Strip. Some Egyptian commentators see the move as a surreptitious means of cementing foreign control over the region.
"These new protocols aren't really about halting arms smuggling," Tarek Fahmi, political science professor at Cairo University and head of the Israel desk at the Cairo-based National Centre for Middle East Studies, told IPS. "Rather, they aim to establish foreign control over the region's strategic border crossings and maritime ports."
On Mar. 13, a major conference was held in London aimed at "coordinating efforts" to stop alleged arms smuggling - by land or sea - into the Gaza Strip, governed by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas. Participants at the conference included high-level representatives from nine member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), including the U.S., Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Italy and Norway.
At the close of the event, participants signed an agreement "to develop an effective framework for international cooperation, supplementary to measures taken by regional states, to prevent and interdict the illicit flow of arms, ammunition and weapons components to Gaza."
According to a final statement, participant governments hope to accomplish these objectives with the use of a series of measures, including "maritime interception, information sharing and diplomatic pressure." The international community "has a responsibility to support prevention and interdiction efforts," the statement reads, noting that such efforts may involve "diplomatic, military, intelligence and law enforcement components."
The London conference follows an earlier meeting devoted to the same issue held in Denmark in early February. A third, follow-up meeting is expected to be held in Canada in April to "work out details" of the pact, according to diplomats close to the talks.
Although Egypt reportedly received an invitation to attend the London gathering, it disdained to send a delegate. Palestinian representation, too - from either Hamas or the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority - was conspicuously absent. Israeli officials, meanwhile, reportedly attended the meeting as "observers".
Shortly afterwards, Mark Regev, spokesman for outgoing Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, lauded the agreement. "The principle is clear - the international community will act to prevent the transfer of weapons," he was quoted as saying.
But Egyptian analysts say the agreement represents a furtive attempt to "internationalise" the longstanding siege of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip....
According to diplomats close to the talks, only "non-coercive" methods will be brought to bear against arms smuggling. Under the terms of the agreement, for example, maritime vessels suspected of carrying contraband can only be boarded for inspection with express permission from the vessel's captain.
Mazloum, however, was not reassured by the ostensibly "non-coercive" nature of the agreement. "These voluntary, supposedly non-coercive inspections will no doubt, over time, become compulsory," he said.
"The West, along with Israel, is attempting to establish regional domination on multiple fronts," said Fahmi. "The plan to redraw the map of the Middle East - from Sudan and Somalia to Palestine and Iraq - is progressing apace, and the hopelessly divided Arabs appear unable to do anything about it."