Egypt anxious to bolster regional standing with Gaza truce
Israeli ground invasion of Gaza would sideline and humiliate Cairo
Almost 200 Palestinians have died during the past week of shell and rocket fire. Photograph: Mohammed Saber/ EPA
Egypt is keen to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas, which rules Gaza, as Cairo cannot afford to allow a full- scale conflict erupt on its northern border, particularly at a time when the country is surrounded by turmoil.
In spite of antagonistic relations with Hamas, an offshoot of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood charged with backing radical jihadi elements in Sinai, Egypt cannot stand by while Israel continues to attack Gaza from the air, land and sea at great cost to Gaza’s 1.7 million inhabitants.
Retaliation An unnamed, clearly exasperated Egyptian official quoted by the newspaper al-Ahram
said yesterday Hamas had been warned Israel would carry out a devastating attack on Gaza after three teenaged West Bank settlers were kidnapped last month. Accused by Israel of involvement, Hamas refused to deny responsibility and retaliated for Israeli air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza by firing rockets into Israel.
The official criticised Hamas for rejecting the de-escalation and ceasefire text Cairo proposed. He said that Israel was more willing to accept the truce as prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu does not want to “get stuck with a ground invasion”.
Although in recent years Egypt has lost its standing as a regional power and player, Cairo continues to aspire to leadership and would be once again sidelined and humiliated if Israel went ahead with a threatened ground operation that would kill many more Palestinians than the 193 who have died during the past week of shell and rocket fire.
Egypt is also concerned that other regional states, including Turkey and Qatar – which have sharply condemned Israel and support the ousted and outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas – could profit from Cairo’s failure to achieve an end to the hostilities.
Egypt fears that as a consequence of the Israeli attacks Hamas’s political position has been boosted while Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, an Egyptian ally, has been sidelined and weakened. The last thing Cairo wants is for Hamas to be strengthened while it stands accused of providing weapons to radical fundamentalists based in the lawless northern Sinai peninsula.
They have been attacking Egyptian troops, police and public facilities and yesterday challenged Cairo by firing rockets into the Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat.
So far, Egyptian public opinion – which is largely hostile to the Brotherhood – blames Hamas for the violence in Gaza but this could change if Israel continues its bombardment of Gaza and Palestinian casualties mount, particularly if Israel launches a ground offensive.
Recently elected president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi would like to gain credit for forging a lasting ceasefire and gaining a diplomatic victory during his first weeks in office. His ousted predecessor Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood veteran, gained international acclaim when he brokered a truce in the eight- day November 2012 exchanges of fire, which killed 158 Palestinians and five Israelis.
That agreement not only committed the sides to halt hostilities but called on Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza and Egypt to open its Rafah border crossing with Gaza to provide free movement of Palestinians and goods. Once the ceasefire took effect, neither Israel nor Egypt delivered on its pledges, leaving Gaza isolated and doubly impoverished since Egypt subsequently destroyed hundreds of smuggling tunnels on which Gaza residents depended for foodstuffs, consumer goods, medicines and building materials.
Ceasefire proposal The current proposal is for a ceasefire and an easing of Israel’s siege of Gaza without an Egyptian commitment to open Rafah. Hamas said it had not been consulted and would not agree to such terms.
Unless a ceasefire accord set to end the ongoing exchanges contains guarantees that the 2012 terms will be implemented Hamas is unlikely to agree. It cannot afford to sign another deal that fails to alleviate the sufferings of Gazans, 80 per cent of whom are dependent for food on international donors.