As the Israeli attack on Gaza continues for the second week running, regional and international powers are seeking to bring the violence to an end.
Egypt has been moving in several directions, embarking on its traditional role of mediating between the Palestinian resistance and Israel. In addition to focusing on resolving the Jerusalem crisis, which was the catalyst for the eruption of war, Egypt stepped up its efforts to send humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territories and opened the Rafah crossing to receive the injured.
Cairo has also intensified its communications with regional and international powers in the framework of moves by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the US and the Quartet on the Middle East.
One source that has been kept up with the Egyptian security delegation mediating between Israel and Hamas since the third day of the war said on Thursday that the delegation is exerting “enormous efforts” to reach a ceasefire. The source hinted that the Israeli position is rigid, especially in relation to the issues of Jerusalem and Hamas’s military capabilities.
The source didn’t go into the details of the negotiations, saying only that the talks did advance from time to time.
The Egyptian delegation is also meeting with international envoys, the source added, pointing out that it is possible the issue will be resolved by the end of the week. He also added that the situation is “extremely complicated”, however. Until the time of writing it was unclear whether the two parties would reach a written, long-term ceasefire or calm will simply reign following a termination of military operations.
The scenario is still unclear, especially since Israel is weighing the two options and their repercussions against each other. Cairo and Washington are seeking to work on the future resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). According to the source, this will depend on reaching a long-term ceasefire as well as a number of other political considerations, some of which make it difficult to achieve.
It is more likely, he added, that the warring parties will reach “an indefinite truce” based on the current negotiations.
Egypt fears the situation on the ground will be further complicated, especially after Israel announced it is targeting the figureheads of the Palestinian resistance. Israel has its eyes on Mohamed Al-Deif, the chief of staff of and supreme military commander of the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. Deif had openly threatened Israel following incidents that took place in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
Despite mediation efforts, the Chief of General Staff of the Israeli army Aviv Kochavi said Deif and Yehia Al-Senwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, were on his list of targets. Israeli forces also raided the houses of Al-Sinwar and his deputy Khalil Al-Hayya.
Egypt is coordinating with Arab parties, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan in the hope of de-escalation. This is the first time Cairo and Doha have coordinated on such level. Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed Bin Abdel-Rahman Al-Thani called his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri, and the two officials agreed on the need to continue to work to reach an immediate ceasefire. They also agreed on the resumption of bilateral, regional and international coordination to achieve the interests of the Palestinian people.
Cairo is also communicating with Hamas leaders residing in Qatar, including Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, who released a statement from Doha that the Cairo calls “were about the latest political and field developments in Gaza, Jerusalem and the rest of the Palestinian territories”.
General Mohamed Ibrahim, deputy director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, who headed the Egyptian delegation of mediators during previous wars between Hamas and Israel, said that “this is a very complex issue, and Egypt is trying to move amid a raging war that knows no boundaries and whose destructive events are rapidly escalating in an unprecedented manner in terms of their dimensions and repercussions on the ground compared to the previous three wars of 2009, 2012 and 2014.”
Ibrahim added that Egypt has embarked on extensive efforts from the beginning of the flare-up of the Jerusalem events on 7 May, identifying its position based on two principles: the rejection of the fait accompli policy Israel is trying to impose on the Palestinians, particularly in Jerusalem; and the Palestinian cause being a basis for regional stability. The Egyptian principle has it that the on and off repercussions are not the cause, but rather the effect of not resolving the issue in a fair manner, with Israel refusing to give Palestinians their legitimate rights.
Egypt launched an effort to resolve the crisis immediately after the incidents of Sheikh Jarrah and the Israeli forces raiding the Al-Aqsa Mosque, even before the situation deteriorated between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Ibrahim said. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry released a statement on 7 May articulating Cairo’s position. The Israeli ambassador in Cairo was called on 9 May, before the bloody events of Gaza, to take a hard-hitting message to her government about the principles Egypt adopts regarding the crisis, he added.
On 11 May, channels of communication were opened between Egyptian officials and Israeli and Palestinian leaders to put an end to the war, before the UNSC stepped in to work on de-escalation. Egypt submitted a strong statement during its participation in the UNSC session, Ibrahim stated.
Egypt actively participated in the emergency foreign ministers’ meeting of the Arab League and that of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, in addition to the phone calls between Shoukri and foreign ministers and officials in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Blinken stressed the need for “all parties to de-escalate tensions”, read a statement released by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. Shoukri also called his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi on 12 May, saying it was imperative to stop Israeli aggressions and resume negotiations in the nearest time possible.
In addition, on 14 May President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi gave his orders that the Rafah crossing should be opened and urgent aid sent to the Palestinians. During his visit to France this week to meet with President Emmanuel Macron, Al-Sisi added the Palestinian crisis to the discussions agenda.
Sinai-based sources from the Egyptian Ministry of Health said the ministry is prepared to receive the injured and has readied 45 ambulances, dispatching additional medical staff from all over the country to hospitals in Arish, Bir Al-Abd and Ismailia.
A Palestinian source in the Gaza Strip also said that Palestinian medical staff have been delivering the injured to the Egyptian medical staff at the crossing since Sunday. The Egyptian staff are not permitted to access the Strip in the light of the hazardous security situation, the source said, adding that the eastern part of the Strip, near the crossing, is suffering heavy Israeli shelling.
Cairo will also work on passing international aid to the Strip through the crossing, sources said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly