Egypt and the Gaza Ceasefires

On Thursday night, the Israel Defense Forces launched a ground offensive on the Gaza Strip following the Israeli Security Cabinet’s approval. The decision came “after Israel agreed to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, whereas Hamas rejected the ceasefire proposal and continued firing rockets at Israeli cities,” according to a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.

In November 2012, the situation was much the same; Israel was bombarding the densely populated Gaza Strip with airstrikes in retaliation to rockets launched by Hamas in what was dubbed by Israel, ‘Operation Pillar of Defense.’ Then too, the option of a ground invasion remained on the table up until the moment the United States and Egypt managed to broker a ceasefire between the two sides. Then Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil visited Gaza and met with his Hamas counterpart, Ismail Haniyeh.

Egypt’s initiative for a ceasefire announced on July 14, 2014 had the international community’s backing and was almost identical to the 2012 proposal. Despite the similarities of the two proposals, the political landscape in which the latest Israel-Hamas flare up is occurring is drastically different.

The 2012 Ceasefire Agreement

The Egyptian administration that brokered the 2012 ceasefire no longer exists. Former President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was largely sympathetic to the Hamas cause, which itself is an offshoot of the Brotherhood. 

Morsi made moves to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip from the Egyptian side by opening the Rafah crossing and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid. Hamas enjoyed the support of their new ally in Cairo and came to the negotiating table with trust in the Islamist president’s intentions. The opening of the border now is to allow the injured access to medical care but still limits movement for Gazans.

Hamas no longer trusts Cairo, and for good reason. The overthrow of Morsi in July 2013 saw the military-backed interim government become increasingly hostile towards Hamas. It began with blaming the group for participating in the surge of militancy in the volatile Sinai Peninsula and culminated in the banning of the group’s activities inside Egypt and the seizure of its offices. Despite this, some Hamas officials have said they still need Egypt but the foreign ministry in Cairo rarely mentions the group’s name.

Diplomacy without Contact

This lack of trust was plain to see when Hamas refused to participate in the proposed ceasefire, claiming it was not officially approached by Egypt. The foreign ministry insisted it had made intensive contacts with all sides including “all Palestinian factions,” which includes Hamas. When pressed on the issue on Tuesday the spokesman said the proposal had been made public and the ministry was waiting for a response from the “Palestinian factions.” This begs the question: did Egypt try to broker a ceasefire without talking directly to one of the main belligerents? 

According to one Palestinian official, Hamas was only approached through another Gaza based group, Islamic Jihad. Along with the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing, Hamas also wants guarantees that the siege on Gaza will be lifted as well as the release of prisoners captured in the latest wave of arrests carried out by the Israelis, including 56 who were part of a swap deal for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011.

The new Egyptian administration, led by former defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has prioritized security and stability and it sees Hamas as a threat to this. The text of the 2014 agreement showed this through the timeframe given to ease the restrictions on the Gaza borders. In 2012, the timeframe was 24 hours from the agreement compared with 2014, which stated the same would happen once “security and stability” had been achieved. 

International Support

Egypt’s relationship with its longtime strategic ally the United States, has clearly been strained since Morsi’s removal. In 2012, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood shoulder to shoulder with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr and the pair proudly announced the agreed upon ceasefire. In 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry endorsed the Egyptian initiative from Vienna, despite reports citing Egyptian officials that he would travel to Cairo to discuss the situation in Gaza. This proposal, whilst being so similar to the 2012 text, lacks the same international united front seen in 2012 with the physical presence of Clinton working on the ground, especially with the US representing Israel’s most important and loyal ally.

Egypt has been making efforts to reestablish itself as a leader on regional issues. The absence of the United States allowed the new administration to take control of the situation. Kerry acknowledged this himself in Vienna saying that he decided to go to Washington and not Cairo because “We believe that it was important to give this offer an opportunity.”  

Refusal to engage with Hamas directly seems to have botched the first Egyptian ceasefire attempt. It tried to shoulder its regional responsibility whilst trying to maintain the frosty nature of its relations with Hamas. With such an approach the initiative was doomed to fail and some may argue that this was the intention all along in order to legitimize the Israeli assault on Hamas in what would be a mutually beneficial outcome. In the mind of the current administration Hamas is an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood and have been depicted as a threat to national security. A weakened, or even destroyed, Hamas is a notion Egypt would welcome with open arms.  

Hamas has not helped to de-escalate the conflict. Israel ordered its armed forces to stop the airstrikes on the Gaza Strip following the acceptance of the Egyptian

ceasefire proposal. Hamas, jaded by not being directly approached, continued to fire rockets, as it did during the United Nations sponsored five hour ‘humanitarian pause.’ The group has showed very little sign of wanting a truce unless it is on its own terms. Hamas political bureau member Mousa Abu Marzouq indicated that Hamas has no intention of peace, saying recently that any truce would be “a warrior’s rest,” pledging to continue its struggle.

Further embarrassment could be in store for Egypt if regional rivals Turkey and Qatar put together a proposal. Egypt has accused the pair of undermining its own initiative, and while Qatar seeks to usurp the mediator role, its direct links to Hamas may not be welcomed by Israel. Nonetheless, with Abbas heading to Turkey following a short stay in Cairo, a joint deal from Turkey and Qatar if accepted, would leave Egypt a little wounded and would only magnify further the extent to which the proposal failed.

The Blame Game

Since the rejection of the ceasefire, both Egyptians and Israelis have held Hamas responsible for the lives that will inevitably be lost during the ground operation. However, Israel is to blame for pulling the trigger, and Egypt can carry blame for the failure of its ceasefire initiative. The stubbornness and pride displayed by all sides has led to the continued death and misery in Gaza and Israel.

Egypt’s administration could take one small thing away from its failed ceasefire initiative, in that Hamas would then be open for further demonization to strengthen the Egyptian public’s support for banning the group.

Away from the politics and diplomacy, the biggest losers in the situation are those with the quietest voice, those fleeing their homes, with nowhere to go. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported on Thursday that 1.8 million had been affected by the conflict, 35,000 people displaced and at least 237 killed, 77 percent of whom are civilians including 31 women and 52 children.

The continued political posturing by all sides with the stated aim of achieving peace has only made the situation for Gazans more terrible than before. 

Joel Gulhane is a Cairo-based reporter for Daily News Egypt. Follow him on Twitter: @jgulhane

Image: Photo: A convoy of Israeli tanks manoeuvre near the border with the Gaza Strip, after the end of a five-hour humanitarian truce, July 17, 2014. (Reuters)