The last chance: Egypt and the ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas

Mohamed Ezz Elarab
Friday 10 May 2024

Egypt is making strenuous shuttle diplomacy efforts with all parties involved (Palestinian, Israeli, US, and Arab countries) to agree on a draft deal for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, working to settle outstanding issues and make mutual concessions.

 

It is the last chance for the warring parties, regional countries and international powers concerned with the stability of the Middle East, to achieve several main goals, the most prominent of which is to prevent the Israeli military presence in Rafah, Palestine from turning into a major invasion, to cease fire as an entry point to stopping the course of the war, to bring in humanitarian aid to all areas of the strip, and to start thinking about rebuilding or reconstructing the Gaza Strip, as well as preventing tension in Arab regional relations.

The next stage will witness a detailed discussion of the technical aspects of the agreement between Hamas and Israel. These include determining how many Israeli captives will be exchanged for Palestinian detainees, the gradual and eventually complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the strip, especially from populated areas, and the return of displaced civilians to their homes.

In this context, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi called in a post on X on Monday for all parties to exert more effort to reach an agreement that ends the humanitarian tragedy, completes the exchange of captives, and leads to a comprehensive ceasefire.

This coincides with a prevailing opinion within the Israeli security services and some Israeli military leaders (minister of defence, chiefs of staff, Shabak, Mossad and the negotiation file officer) that the war has reached a dead end, which requires a negotiated settlement to recover the captives.

Governing determinants
 

Based on the need to reach a negotiated outcome, several determinants govern Egypt's efforts to expedite a ceasefire agreement between the two warring parties, as follows:

1. Preventing the Israeli military presence in Rafah from turning into a major invasion:

The Israeli operation in Rafah is still limited to the eastern edges of Rafah and not in depth. Egypt objects to Netanyahu's strategy of military escalation, which aims to pressure Hamas into making concessions. Israel took control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing after Hamas accepted the ceasefire agreement prepared by Egypt. They are still threatening to fully penetrate Rafah, which is the last relatively safe area in Gaza for more than a million Palestinians. Such an attack would lead to an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe and must be avoided.

Although Israel claimed that this latest escalation was a response to a Hamas attack on Israeli troops near the Karm Abu Salem crossing, Egypt believes that escalation and counter-escalation do not advance efforts to reach a ceasefire.

In this context, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on Wednesday that the Israeli operation in Rafah “threatens the fate of the strenuous efforts made to reach a sustainable ceasefire inside Gaza." adding that "Egypt considers this dangerous escalation to threaten the lives of more than a million Palestinians."

Egypt especially opposes the operation as it may displace Palestinians toward the Egyptian border, which puts political and humanitarian pressure on Egypt.

2. Ceasefire as an entry point to stopping the war:

Despite the Israeli rejection, the latest draft agreement uses a temporary ceasefire to reach an end to the war in the third stage of the agreement. This approach is a middle-ground solution satisfactory to both Hamas and Israel. It considers that Tel Aviv has lost US political support and popular Israeli support, although these are weak obstacles to the Israeli government.

Netanyahu is not the only supporter of continuing the war. Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet, shares this vision and believes that ending military operations without Rafah would mean "extinguishing 80 percent of the fire," allowing Hamas to rebuild itself. In addition, daily demonstrations in Israeli cities by the families of slain soldiers are demanding the continuation of the war. Meanwhile, right-wing movements are publicly pressuring the government to attack Rafah under the slogan "eliminating Hamas is a condition for Israel's existence," in contrast to demonstrations by the families of Israeli prisoners held by Hamas calling on the prime minister to accept the ceasefire agreement.

Egypt is working to exploit this division to prevent the political leadership in Israel from rallying to continue the war and reject the ceasefire.

3. Delivering humanitarian aid to all areas of the Gaza Strip:

The Egyptian position sees a ceasefire as key to bringing in more humanitarian, relief, and medical assistance to all areas of the strip in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of the Palestinian people.

Therefore, the foreign ministry demanded on Wednesday, that Israel "exercise maximum restraint and avoid further escalation at this sensitive time in the ceasefire negotiations, and spare the lives of Palestinian civilians who are facing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe since the start of the war on the Gaza Strip."

4. Starting to think about rebuilding or reconstructing the Gaza Strip:

Rebuilding Gaza is one of the main motives driving Egyptian support for a ceasefire. Moving from a state of war to a truce and reconstruction would restore life anew after the Gaza Strip has been turned into a death zone with unprecedented rates of human loss and widespread destruction of infrastructure.

Human development in Gaza, with all its components of health, education, economy and infrastructure, has regressed four decades. The volume of rubble reached forty million tons, and 72 percent of residential buildings have been completely or partially destroyed.

International estimates indicate that reconstruction may continue for the next century if the pace is comparable to previous wars. A UN report issued in May estimates that the cost of rebuilding the strip will be $40 billion. This cost will only increase if the war continues.

The psychological effects of the war on civilians as well as the sharp increase in poverty in such a short period, will lead to a dangerous development crisis that threatens the future of generations to come, which some consider the most important task the international community has not dealt with since World War II.

This situation will require a three-year-long temporary early recovery programme after the cessation of the war.

The United Nations Development Program and Arab countries have discussed how to quickly house displaced Palestinians in decent housing and restore their normal economic, social, health and educational life, as they do not have the luxury of time to wait for decades for reconstruction.

To recover, Gaza will need a new Marshall Plan, the US-sponsored plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. However, there are deep doubts about the West's readiness to undertake this task in partnership with the Arab countries with the financial suitability and human capabilities concerned with rebuilding Gaza, especially in light of internal conflicts in Arab countries that also need settlement and reconstruction efforts.

5. Preventing tension in Arab regional relations:

Before the Gaza war, the region was set to enter a path of appeasement rather than tension between Arab countries, and between Arab countries and regional powers like Iran, Israel, and Ethiopia. The cost of peace and cooperation is much lower than the cost of conflict.

For example, the Arab Quartet countries had repaired their relations with Qatar following the Al-Ula agreement, Syria had returned to the Arab League, and Egypt-Turkey relations had begun to gradually normalize after a decade of tensions stemming from the after the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. At the same time, there was a relative improvement in Saudi-Emirati relations with Turkey. Saudi Arabia and Iran signed an agreement to restore diplomatic relations under Beijing's sponsorship, in addition to frequent talks about Iran's readiness to discuss strengthening relations with Egypt.

However, with the attacks of 7 October, attention has been preoccupied with containing the war and preventing its expansion. Therefore, Egyptian officials reiterate in various regional and international forums that there is a link between what is happening in Gaza and regional stability, which is reflected in the escalation in the West Bank, Lebanon and the Red Sea, which successively affects global trade and development conditions within each country in the region.

This is why President El-Sisi was right when he said during his inauguration for his third presidential term: "The past few years have proven that the path to building nations is not paved with roses and that the twists and turns of fate, between attempts of terrorist evil within the country, sudden global crises abroad, and international and regional wars around us, impose upon us challenges that have perhaps never been met in this volume and intensity throughout Egypt's modern history."

Different paths
 

In this context, Egypt is moving on more than one level, as follows:

First: Putting the Egyptian army on high alert to deal with any scenario along its borders, whether from the east after the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, from the west after the multiple fluidity of the situation in Libya, or from the south where the Sudanese army is vying with the Rapid Support Forces for control of power.

President El-Sisi said this during his inaugural speech, stressing "the priority of preserving Egypt's national security in an unstable international and regional environment."

Second: Strengthening Egyptian contacts with Washington to pressure Israel to reach a truce agreement that allows for the exchange of prisoners and detainees and a halt to the bloodshed for a few weeks leading to a complete ceasefire, and building on current mediation efforts to reach a breakthrough in this tense situation.

Third: Continuing coordination with Arab parties, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan, to prevent the continuation of escalation and the region's slide into a wider conflict between Israel on the one hand and the Resistance Axis led by Iran on the other. This also includes sending signals to Israel from different Arab countries that the state of regional normalization with it is contingent on a new approach to the Palestinians.

Fourth: Ensuring that both the Israeli and Hamas sides make mutual concessions in the negotiations. Both sides are entering the negotiations within a framework of "balances of weakness" not "balances of power."

After more than 200 days of war, Israel has been unable to achieve its war goals and the Hamas leadership, both inside and outside the strip, did not gamble before 7 October that their attack would incur such human and material losses for the strip.

The writer is the head of Arab Affairs Unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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