by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
1 March 1996
AS Middle East International went to press, Yemen was preparing an
appeal to the UN Security Council as efforts to mediate in its dispute with Eritrea
reached an impasse. The latest move came after Yemeni concessions were met with an
apparent attempt by Eritrea to raise the stakes. The dispute flared up last December when
Eritrean forces seized Greater Hanish island in the Red Sea, almost midway between the two
states. Twelve people died and more than 200 Yemenis were captured in the fighting.
Since then, the French envoy, Francis Gutmann, has been
shuttling between Sana'a and Asmara with a draft agreement aimed at resolving the
conflict. Egypt and Ethiopia have also been attempting to mediate.
Gutmann's plan envisages a two-stage solution, beginning
with a formal end to hostilities - probably supervised by France - and followed by a
six-month arbitration period to determine questions of sovereignty and maritime borders.
Both sides have now agreed to arbitration and Yemen has dropped its demand for an Eritrean
withdrawal before talks can start.
The main sticking-point is Eritrean insistence on prior
agreement about "the nature of the dispute". This centres on whether the quarrel
is about Greater Hanish itself or about the scattered archipelago of which the island is a
part. Last week [Feb 21] the Cairo newspaper al-Ahram, which often represents Egyptian
government views, cautioned Eritrea against an escalation of its territorial claims.
Meanwhile the Eritrean government appeared to close the door on further French mediation
by saying it had "produced no result whatsoever".
The apparent deadlock has created an opportunity for
Israel to enter the diplomatic fray. It has close relations with Eritrea and may hold the
key to a solution. Many Yemenis suspect that Israel initially encouraged the Eritrean
attack with the intention of helping to resolve it later and extracting a price from Yemen
- probably through Yemeni participation in the Middle East peace process (Middle East
International 516). Apart from Israeli denials, subsequent events have done nothing to
allay those suspicions.
Following the "non-meeting" between President
Salih and Prime Minister Peres in Paris on January 10 (Middle East International 518)
there have been reports of increasing Yemeni-Israeli contacts. On February 16, Israel
Defence Forces radio claimed that a foreign ministry delegation had visited Yemen
"several weeks ago" and that this was not the first such visit. Last Sunday [Feb
25], Abd al-Wahhab Darawshah, a member of the Knesset, arrived in Yemen with a message for
President Salih from Mr Peres - becoming the first Israeli to visit Yemen openly. On the
Eritrean side, President Afewerki has made at least one unscheduled trip to Israel.
There are two likely reasons behind a Yemeni appeal to the
Security Council. One may be to forestall or dilute attempts by Israel to interpose itself
as a peace broker. The other may be to counter domestic pressure in Yemen for a military
Many Yemenis regard the loss of Hanish as a matter of
honour and expect the island to be recovered quickly. But in his 'Id al-Fitr broadcast,
Salih ruled out the possibility of retaking the island by force and stressed the need for
"calm, patience and wisdom".
With a navy consisting mainly of inshore patrol boats,
there is no certainty that a Yemeni operation to retake Hanish would succeed. It would
also conflict with Yemen's declared policy of settling all its border issues (most notably
with Saudi Arabia) peacefully.
The danger for Salih would come if the Hanish dispute
dragged on, with his strength as a leader called into question. Perhaps with this in mind,
he recently launched a personal campaign against lax and corrupt government which, if it
succeeds, could enhance his popularity.
During Ramadan he arrived, unannounced, at various
government buildings and found them virtually deserted. According to the Yemen Times, he
then closed the empty offices and took away the keys. Several civil servants have since
been suspended and a number of military officers demoted.
The president is also said to have driven incognito
from Aden to Sana'a to experience at first hand the bribes collected at wayside