Egypt fears humanitarian crisis in Gaza following Israeli assaults

Dina Ezzat , Friday 16 Nov 2012

If Tel Aviv maintains onslaught much longer, Gaza Strip could suffer humanitarian crisis as it did following 2008/09 'Cast Lead' attack, informed sources warn

Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Egypt's Prime Minister Hisham Kandil (2nd L) hold the hand of a patient, who was injured during an Israeli strike, during their visit to a hospital in Gaza City November 16, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

While Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil was expressing solidarity with the embattled Palestinians and calling for de-escalation in Gaza, Egypt's head of intelligence was communicating a message to leading Hamas figure Khaled Meshaal, Egyptian and Palestinian sources told Ahram Online.

"Nobody knows what will happen next, but this operation must end as soon as possible," said one Egyptian government official. "If it goes on for a week, we'll have to start worrying about a humanitarian crisis in Gaza."

Into the third day of the Israeli onslaught, Gaza is already suffering considerably, according to global charity group Oxfam's Karl Schembri, who is currently based in the besieged coastal enclave.

"People are terrified. Mothers say that their children are waking up frightened in the middle of the night," Schembri said. "Gaza is very small and very heavily populated. When the attacks begin, there's simply no place to hide."

He added that the latest round of attacks had "revived memories" of Israel's 2008/09 'Cast Lead' assault on the Gaza Strip, in which some 1500 Palestinians were killed – the vast majority of them civilians – and thousands more injured.

"Debris from that operation was never fully removed; some families who lost their homes during Cast Lead are still living in makeshift dwellings," said Schembri. "Gaza was already years behind in terms of reconstruction – and now this."

According to Schembri's assessment, the first few days of the latest round of Israeli violence were not as bad as those seen during Cast Lead. Still, he added, calls were already being made for donations of blood, while hospitals in Gaza were beginning to fall short on some medical supplies.

"The worst fear is of fuel shortages," schembri said, noting that large swathes of Gaza were already suffering frequent power cuts. "The international community must take clear steps to ensure that the 2008/09 scenario isn't repeated."

Fears of another Operation Cast Lead continue to haunt Egyptian decision-makers as they intensify efforts to broker a ceasefire.

In Gaza, while voicing solidarity with the Palestinian people, PM Qandil adopted a reconciliatory tone, stressing the need for de-escalation.

According to informed sources contacted by Ahram Online, Qandil commiserated with Ismail Haniya, head of the Hamas-led Gaza government, over the unsympathetic response to the crisis on the part of the US and other western capitals. The latter have largely blamed Hamas for the escalation – an idea that has reportedly gained some currency within the UN Security Council.

This unsympathetic attitude on the part of the so-called 'international community,' say sources, was reflected in a Thursday telephone conversation between Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and US counterpart Barack Obama, in which the two heads of state discussed the latest developments.

Similar sentiments, meanwhile, were communicated to Meshaal through Mohamed Shehata, head of Egyptian intelligence. Meshaal, according to one source, may come to Cairo for ceasefire talks.

"We know that the [Israeli] military operation will not stop immediately, but it must not go on for more than a week," said the government official. "The situation is very volatile."

According to security sources, Egypt is also extremely concerned about developments in the Sinai Peninsula. Cairo has already ordered a scale-down of military operations in the peninsula, launched three months ago with the stated aim of curtailing the influence of Sinai-based militant groups.

The operation was also launched with the aim of stopping these groups from potentially provoking Israel. The recent decision to scale back operations, say sources, has to do with Israeli demands to reduce Egypt's military capacity in the area.

"We're well aware that some of the militant Jihadists in Sinai are in direct contact with militant groups in Gaza that do not fall under Hamas' control," said a security source. "We really have to keep Sinai out of this mess."

The same source added that, once the current Israeli onslaught winds down, "we will act in a firmer way to fix the security situation in Gaza, including a firmer policy vis-a-vis closing the tunnels linking Gaza with Egypt."

Since an attack in early August near the Rafah Border Crossing (which links Egypt to Gaza) that killed 16 Egyptian border guards, Egypt has dragged its feet on closing the tunnels. Fearing the tunnels allow jihadists and weapons to flow both to and from Egypt, Cairo is also aware that the tunnels are used to bring desperately needed food, medicine and fuel into Gaza, still suffering from a crushing six-year Israeli-Egyptian embargo.

"The blockade is the real problem that must be addressed," said Schembri. "The blockade means that, even when attacks stop, reconstruction is impossible; it means unemployment and economic stagnation."

In recent talks at the UN Security Council and with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Arab diplomats have called on the international community to work not only on ending the ongoing Israeli aggression, but also on improving humanitarian conditions in Gaza.

"I don’t think anybody can realistically talk about lifting the siege now, but we can talk about improving humanitarian conditions," said one Arab diplomat speaking from New York. "After all, the UN is clearly talking about very poor humanitarian conditions in Gaza, but this was the case before the latest attack."

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