Egypt will not let go of Gaza, at least for strategic reasons

Dina Ezzat, Saturday 11 Oct 2014

President El-Sisi is due to underline Gaza's importance to Egypt as Cairo hosts a reconstruction conference Sunday. But behind official declarations, deep tensions and conflicting interests abound

Rafah crossing border
At the height of the latest Israeli bombings, people, hoping to cross into Egypt, stand behind a gate as they wait at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip August 5, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

When Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi addresses the international conference on Gaza Sunday, he will be sending a key message to all concerned parties, in the region and beyond: Egypt is not letting go of Gaza, in the strategic if not the humanitarian sense.

The statement of El-Sisi will include clear language on the commitment of Egypt to the Palestinian cause in general, and particularly to the safety and interests of Palestinians living in Gaza.

The Egyptian president will also, according to presidential sources who spoke to Ahram Online on condition of anonymity, highlight the "efforts that Egypt had exerted to spare Gaza from the shocking damage" the Strip sustained during the 51-day Israeli war this summer.

Also to be highlighted in the statement of the president is the "continued commitment of Egypt to help elevate the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian national unity government."

El-Sisi's statement is also expected to address the commitment of Egypt to cement the Palestinian national unity government and to promote wider Palestinian reconciliation.

"In short, he will be telling all concerned that Egypt is committed to its historical role in Gaza and it will be doing so in a way that would not recognise the already weakening and always illegal control that Hamas imposed on the Gaza Strip," said one presidential source.

"He will be saying that we will be working to help the people of Gaza in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and in line with our national security interests, basically." 

Meanwhile, a PA source told Ahram Online that a similar line would appear in the statement that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be making before the same inaugural session of the one-day conference in Cairo Sunday.

Not letting go

The fact that the international conference on the reconstruction of Gaza is happening in, and being hosted and presided over by, Egypt is in itself — from the perspective of Egyptian diplomacy — the clearest message possible that Egypt is still "very much hands on when it comes to Gaza."

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri will take over moderation of the conference after El-Sisi makes his statement.

"There has been an attempt by the Qataris and the Turks to challenge the Egyptian historical role and strategic association with Gaza during the summer, but it was firmly stopped. We aborted it and we proved that nothing happens in Gaza without Egyptian approval," said an Egyptian diplomat.

He hastened to add that this "of course does not include the Israeli attacks."

Some have suggested that the devastating Israeli aggression on the besieged and impoverished Gaza Strip was initiated after the Israelis received a nod of approval from Cairo to try to eliminate Hamas, a close associate of the Muslim Brotherhood that current authorities in Egypt are in a bitter fight with.

During the summer Egypt managed, with the support of Israel, according to Cairo-based foreign diplomats, to block all diplomatic attempts to broker a ceasefire away from Egypt, between Israel and Hamas that has effectively been running Gaza since it expelled the PA in the summer of 2007.

"The Israelis made it very clear that they would only agree to a deal within the lines of the initiative that Egypt had proposed in around the second week of the war, and they declined to seriously consider any other ideas, including those that the US and the EU tried to formulate upon a joint Turkish-Qatari paper that never really amounted to an initiative," said one Cairo-based European diplomat.

The diplomat added: "Abbas, too, was — and despite what he said here and there — trying to make sure that it was Egypt that brokered the deal because that would mean that he was taking back the internal Palestinian power of balance to where it was during the rule of [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak."

Mubarak — like Egypt's current authorities — sided with Abbas against Hamas in what former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni qualified as a coalition of moderates versus extremists during the 2008-2009 Israeli aggression on Gaza.

"Of course we are not happy with the fact that Hamas is still more influential in Gaza than the national unity government and we are trying to change this."

"We will try to do so during the agreements to be reached in the conference [on Sunday] by making sure that reconstruction plans and priorities are decided by the PA and national unity government, and we will make sure that all funds and materials are allowed through the Israeli crossings (because for us the Rafah crossing is for individuals not for commodities and construction materials) will be allowed in under the supervision of the PA, not Hamas, that is for sure,” said the same diplomatic source.

Egypt, he said, will not let go of Gaza. Not to the control of Hamas, and not to the supervision of Turkey or Qatar.

The strategic importance of Gaza

For Egypt, especially today at a time when the new Egyptian regime is trying hard to gain international recognition that was hesitant in the early days of El-Sisi’s ascent to power, Gaza — and to a lesser extent the Palestinian cause — is arguably one of its key bargaining chips.

"Gaza is a headache for Egypt. It is still largely controlled by Hamas, the strongest ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, this is true. But it is also a headache for Israel, due to the presence of Hamas and its resistance. So by silencing the headache for Israel and by keeping Hamas in check, Egypt is surely making foreign policy gains," said another Cairo-based European diplomat.

It is an open secret that since the Gaza-Jericho Agreement in the early 1990s, which allowed for the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and portion of the West Bank, Egypt has engaged in close security coordination with Israel over developments in the Strip.

This coordination continued uninterrupted after the 2005 Israeli unilateral redeployment from Gaza and it gained a larger avenue upon the 2007 Hamas takeover of the Strip, whereupon Israel upgraded its closure policy on Gaza into what concerned UN bodies have qualified as a suffocating blockade.

During the intervening years, including after the ouster of the Mubarak regime, and even during the short-lived rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian-Israeli security, military and intelligence cooperation managed to spot and stop many of the activities and funds of Hamas and other Palestinian resistance movements in Gaza and at times beyond.

"The Israelis know very well that had it not been to our efforts they would have been suffering much harsher attacks from Hamas and others. We are doing this not because we love Israel, but because we genuinely believe that only a negotiated deal is possible. The Palestinian Authority, too, is of the same opinion," said a former Egyptian intelligence source.

He added that by "eliminating" militancy in Gaza, Egypt had managed to secure a key national security interest of "blocking jihadists from infiltrating our backyard and of giving us a serious headache."

"Of course, this rule was not very carefully observed under [ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed] Morsi, but things have been rectified. You have to realise that a great deal of the headache in Sinai today is related to the situation in Gaza," he argued.

Since the ouster of Morsi in July last year, Egyptian authorities have been engaged in what for all practical purposes amounts to "war" against jihadists who have found their way into Sinai — not just from Gaza but also from other parts of the Arab Mashreq, especially Syria.

By destroying tunnels that link Gaza to Rafah on Egypt’s eastern borders, Egyptian authorities say they managed to block the open channels that "terrorists use to smuggle arms and jihadists who attack Egyptian targets."

It is a situation that also, by the assessment of international humanitarian orgianisations, denied Palestinians the only route to food, medicine and other basics that are prohibited by Israel for their alleged possible "dual use."

From the perspective of some Gaza residents, and that of Hamas leaders, what Egypt did under Mubarak and is doing again now is turning Gaza into a mere pawn serving its foreign policy interests without consideration given to the humanitarian needs of the two million Palestinians who live in the impoverished and largely destroyed Strip, a great number displaced if not long term residents of refugee camps after the 1948 war.

Egypt-Gaza: a love-hate relationship

International humanitarian workers who have been to Gaza after the summer war ended speak of the anger and bitterness that average Palestinians in Gaza feel towards Egypt.

In the words of one who spoke on condition of anonymity, "Gaza has turned into a large reservoir of hatred towards Egypt. It is a kind of bitterness that one would not find in Israel, for sure."

Abdel-Alim Mohamed, a political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, acknowledges what he qualifies as "the very big mistake" of Egyptian media, "that while trying to analyse the downfalls of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt chose to lump the Muslim Brotherhood with Hamas and with Gaza."

"This was very unfortunate, because at the end of the day we have a situation whereby the overwhelming proportion of Egyptian public opinion is opposed to Gaza. You talk to people and they tell you that all in Gaza are associated with Hamas, and Hamas has been involved in targeting Egyptian interests. It is really very unfortunate," Mohamed said.

The lack of Egyptian sympathy towards Palestinians in Gaza did not start in 2014, argued a retired intelligence source. "It had been there since the massive Palestinian invasion of the border with Egypt in January 2009. At the time Egyptians felt that the Palestinians of Gaza were taking Egypt for granted."

During the past two years, anti-Gaza sentiment intensified amid accounts in now firmly pro-regime media suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood had agreed with Hamas to establish a Palestinian state in Sinai and that Hamas activists had been involved in orchestrating and executing attacks on Egyptian prisons during the January revolution to free Muslim Brotherhood members.

"For decades Egypt has had a very close association with Gaza, due to the long joint history of standing up in the face of Israeli aggression. We should not allow Egyptian relations with Gaza to be reduced to a political difference with Hamas,” said Mohamed.

Egyptian volunteers, including figures of the then nascent Muslim Brotherhood, went to Gaza before and during the 1948 war to help the Palestinians protect their lands. The Egyptian army also took part alongside the Palestinians in the 1948 war, with most of the Free Officers of the 1952 Revolution — including Gamal Abdel Nasser — having served in the war.

Following the Arab loss, Gaza was put under Egyptian administrative rule, a situation that allowed for closer than ever interaction, with many Egyptian civil servants and professionals going to serve in Gaza and Palestinians of Gaza coming to study in Egypt.

Egyptians in their late 50s and older remember the days of traveling to Gaza by train and of shopping for the best fruits and best desserts in the neighbouring Strip.

Upon the defeat of the Egyptian army in 1967, Gaza was lost to the Israeli occupation. But relations continued to be warm between Palestinians living there and Egyptians. Many maintained friendships by letter. 

During the October 1973 War, as some Hamas leaders recall in informal moments, hopes were high for an Arab victory that would at the least return Gaza to Egypt, if not liberate all of Palestine.

With the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979, relations between Egypt and the Palestinians went sour, with overwhelming Arab rejection of the unilateral deal. This only changed a decade later with Arab acknowledgment of the inevitability of peace talks with Israel.

"On and off there were recurrent problems with Egypt. We suffered with the arrest of some of our best elements upon Israeli notification to Egyptian authorities. We were in pain when Egypt decided to close its borders to us during Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009). But never before have we seen such a hostile media campaign against Palestinians in Gaza as during the last year," said a leading Hamas figure who asked for his name to be withheld.

He added he hoped the reconstruction process would allow for a new beginning in relations between Egypt and Gaza.

But the prospects of this are slim, at least regarding Hamas. The Egyptian diplomatic source underlined that reconstruction would mean the PA regaining control of Gaza. "For as long as Hamas is in control, things cannot resume as they were before," he said.

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