Egypt’s Half-Hearted Gaza Initiative

The most significant development in Egypt’s reaction to the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, that left a heavy death toll among Palestinian civilians and forced millions of Israelis to hide in bunkers for a week so far, was how slow and neutral Cairo’s role appears to be.

The close ties Hamas enjoyed with former President, and Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted a year ago by newly elected President, and former defense Minister, Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, clearly influenced Egypt’s reaction, on both official and popular levels.

Over the past year, Hamas has been charged in semi-official and private Egyptian media with standing behind all violence rocking Sinai and different Egyptian cities in alliance with Brotherhood members and other Islamist militant groups. Many of its critics allege that Hamas provided training and weapons through tunnels across the borders, and even played a key role in the popular revolution against former President Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011. Morsi is also currently on trial over charges of espionage and providing secret intelligence to Hamas during his year in office. According to the official charges, the Palestinian militant group also sent armed members to free Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders from prison a few days after the revolution started against Mubarak.

As soon as Israel launched its air bombing campaign against Gaza in early July, Azza Sami, deputy editor-in-chief of the country’s largest daily, Al-Ahram, caused an uproar when she tweeted, “Thank you (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu, and may God let us have more of people like you to terminate Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood agents.” The escalation of Israeli attacks, and the rising death toll among Palestinians, including children and women, did not sway the anti-Hamas hysteria, and did little to abate calls to Sisi to not get involved in support of a group that “conspired against Egypt and its interests.” Some commentators on state-owned television claimed Hamas was involved in a plot with Qatar and Turkey to reestablish its role in Gaza, and should not receive any help from Cairo.

In contrast, a number of Egyptian opposition parties, mostly Arab-nationalist and leftist, were quick to condemn the Israeli attack, and called upon the government to immediately open the Rafah Border Crossing with Gaza to ease the Israeli closure. They organized small demonstrations, issued statements and prepared to send medical and food supplies to Gaza. They also criticized the official statement issued by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry which called “upon both sides to immediately stop all acts of violence.” But protests held by opposition and radical youth groups were nothing to compare to angry demonstrations in which thousands took part when Israel attacked Gaza or Palestinian territories in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in recent years.

Labeled “the Brotherhood’s Gaza branch,” Hamas top officials expressed dismay at how Egypt‘s official reaction seemed indifferent, compared to both Mubarak, and, of course, Morsi. After 30 years in power, Mubarak was the key player in all US and international peace efforts aiming to bring permanent peace between Israel and Palestine. He used this card to convince Western powers to disregard his record in rigging elections, violating basic human rights and corruption.

More recently, when a round of fighting broke out between Hamas and Israel in late 2012, Morsi was quick in brokering a truce after eight days, proving his credentials to the United States as a reliable Egyptian president who could contain political Islamic groups in Gaza and the region.

Egyptian officials deny they are indifferent to the human suffering facing Palestinians in Gaza, and insist they have been involved in mediation efforts behind the scenes since the fighting broke out. They also point to Egypt opening the Rafah Crossing in order to allow the entry of nearly two dozen Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombing. The crossing has, however, not been left open permanently. Close to 200 Palestinians have been killed, and hundreds badly wounded.

On Monday, July 14, Egypt finally announced an initiative calling for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and “Palestinian factions in Gaza Strip.” The official statement that was read out by Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri during an Arab League meeting, including the details of the truce, clearly avoided mentioning Hamas by name, and used neutral language. The Egyptian initiative sounded more like a diplomatic document issued by the United Nations Security Council.

The initiative said that “in light of Egypt’s historic responsibility, its belief in the importance of achieving peace in the region, and in order to preserve the lives of civilians and stop the bloodshed, Egypt calls upon Israel and the Palestinian factions to adhere to an immediate ceasefire, considering that any escalation in violence, and counter violence, with all losses involved, will not serve the interests of any of the two parties.”

“Israel should stop all hostilities against Gaza Strip by land, sea and air, and confirm that it will not carry out a ground offensive against Gaza or target civilians,” the Egyptian initiative stated. In return, “All Palestinian factions should stop all hostilities against Israel by air, sea, land and underground (tunnels), while assuring that no rockets of any kind would be fired, as well as attacks on the border or targeting civilians.” Finally, the initiative called for opening the crossing points and easing the movement of individuals and goods to Gaza “in light of stability of security conditions on the ground.”

Egypt gave both sides 12 hours to agree to begin the truce and invited Israeli officials and representatives of “Palestinian factions” to visit Cairo within 48 hours and hold separate meetings in order to agree on all security details and confidence building measures.

According to informed sources, Sisi wants to avoid any direct dealings with Hamas, leaving this to Egyptian Intelligence, exactly as Mubarak did over the past three decades. Instead, he was seeking to strengthen Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, including through reviving a US-brokered agreement in 2005 on the control of crossing points in Gaza, through a joint PA, European and Israeli force.

The brief ceasefire collapsed as Hamas fired rockets on Israel early Tuesday morning, and Kerry has since canceled his trip to Cairo. While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Egypt’s initiative, Hamas said it was not privy to the proposal. Egypt’s initiative, Hamas said, ignored calls for the opening of crossing points for individuals and goods or the release of Palestinian Hamas prisoners who were arrested in the West Bank and Gaza. It wasn’t until Wednesday that Hamas formally rejected the Egyptian initiative, as airstrikes on Gaza continue.

It is possible that Hamas could finally accept a truce, with negotiations taking place through Abbas, if Sisi insists on continuing to rebuff them. Hamas officials have said they are keen to maintain the unity government recently established with Fatah, and Abbas has already held meetings with Hamas Deputy Chairman Moussa Abu Marzouq in Cairo on Wednesday, July 16, to discuss the Egypt-brokered truce. Egypt, through its contacts with all Palestinian factions, seems willing to play a role in brokering a deal between Hamas and Israel, but without taking the lead, especially at time Egypt’s Sisi believes priority should go to domestic issues, mainly restoring security and a sharply deteriorating economy.

Khaled Dawoud is currently Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the official spokesman of the social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. 

Image: Photo: Smoke and flames are seen following what police said was an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip July 9, 2014. (Reuters)