Middle East at boiling point

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 17 Oct 2023

Dina Ezzat reports on the latest diplomatic moves to contain the Gaza crisis

photo: AP
photo: AP


On Saturday Egypt is expected to host a summit to discuss the fast-deteriorating situation in the Gaza Strip. Official sources say that the meeting will have around 20 participants, including King Abdullah of Jordan, Emir Tamim of Qatar, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The summit is set to take place in either the New Administrative Capital or Sharm El-Sheikh.

According to Egyptian diplomatic sources, the key items on the agenda will be emergency humanitarian aid, the plight of the displaced, and the shape of a future political process.

The summit is expected to appeal for humanitarian pauses to allow desperately needed aid to enter Gaza.

“We are still trying to include language on a ceasefire in the final statement, but we are not sure this will happen. Several participants have yet to come out in support of a ceasefire,” said one source, a clear reference to the failure of the UN Security Council on Monday to vote for a Russian proposal that included a ceasefire call.

The four states that voted against the resolution — the US, UK, France, and Japan — said they did so because it made no reference to the Hamas attack on the southern part of Israel on 7 October. An informed source who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly from New York ahead of the council’s meeting said the resolution was unlikely to pass “not only because it is proposed by Russia but also because it includes a reference to a ceasefire.”

In Cairo, diplomatic sources say Egypt’s immediate priority is to alleviate the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

For a week Israel had rejected all appeals, including from the UN and the US, to allow urgent supplies into Gaza. “Every time we hear supplies are coming, at the last moment Israel declines,” said Bashar Mourad, executive director of the Palestinian Red Crescent, in a telephone interview with the Weekly from Gaza on Monday.

UN agencies, including UNRWA, the organisation responsible for Palestinian refugees, have warned that Gaza is on the brink of catastrophe following 10 days of constant bombing and the forced evacuation of more than a million Palestinians ordered by Israel.

On Tuesday, the Spokesperson for the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Office Ravine Shamdasani said Israel’s siege of Gaza and its evacuation order “could amount to a forcible transfer of civilians” which is against international law. According to the regulations of the International Criminal Court, forcible transfer is a crime against humanity.

Egyptian diplomatic sources say while there is increasing pressure on Israel to pause its aggression to allow humanitarian relief, Israel is unlikely to accommodate appeals to end the depopulation of the north of the Strip.

For Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states with peace treaties and direct borders with Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the concern is that the refugee crisis will spill across their borders.

“What starts in the north of Gaza will not necessarily end there and it is quite possible that at some point, sooner rather than later, Israel will begin a second depopulation process in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” said a Washington-based Arab diplomatic source. This, he added, could involve a possible influx of Palestinian refugees into Egypt and Jordan, “two countries already facing severe economic challenges”.

While Hamas leaders abroad, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, and King Abdullah of Jordan all firmly oppose the forced expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, neither Egypt nor Jordan, say officials, will close their borders to Palestinians who need medical or other humanitarian relief.

For Cairo and Amman, there is an enormous difference between helping out with the current crisis and allowing a massive influx of Palestinians, say sources. The latter, they add, is firmly off the table.

The fate of the displaced was expected to dominate the meeting with US President Joe Biden that Al-Sisi and Abdullah — which until the Weekly went to print on Tuesday — were scheduled to have on Wednesday in Amman. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas cancelled his participation in the meeting after the barbaric Israeli attack on a Gaza hospital on Tuesday.

Biden was set to first land in Israel, in a show of solidarity with Israel and, as Cairo-based foreign diplomats note, in a last-ditch attempt to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold back from a massive ground invasion of Gaza.

The communiqué that is expected to come out of the Cairo summit on Saturday, say sources, will contain “very clear language against all attempts to expel Palestinians from their land”.

In Cairo, foreign and Egyptian diplomatic sources share concerns about the consequences of an Israeli ground operation. As the Weekly went to press, a consensus was emerging that Netanyahu’s goal is likely to be the reoccupation of a strip of land across the border, and the depopulation of an adjacent strip of territory.

Whatever the scenario, diplomats say the “humanitarian outcome” will involve massive displacement. Nor will there be much for the displaced to return to given the razing of the densely populated area.

It was not immediately clear how far the summit will go in discussing pledges for the reconstruction of Gaza though sources say Egypt is trying to prompt the issue, with Cairo believing it will send a positive message to devastated Palestinians if pledges for reconstruction are made.

An appeal for the reconstruction of Gaza and fast-tracking humanitarian aid are also expected to figure on the communiqué that will come out of the emergency ministerial meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) that was expected to convene in Jeddah, the headquarters of the OIC, on Wednesday.

Cairo is also determined to press for the launch of a political process that gives the Palestinians hope for statehood rather than a new Nakba. Egyptian sources say that one of the things that will be discussed on the fringe of the Saturday summit is the possibility of Egypt inviting “the parties” in the near future to discuss the launch of such a process.

Diplomatic sources say there are question marks on how far such an initiative can go given the total disinterest of the current Israeli government, the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, and Washington’s unwillingness to engage in peace negotiations.

According to some diplomats, the concept of a two-state solution and of land-for-peace on which the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative was established, are redundant given the erosion of Palestinian land by illegal Israeli settlements and the trade-for-normalisation agenda several Arab countries have adopted.

Cairo-based foreign diplomats say the height of Washington’s ambition at the moment is to ensure “the profound weakening of Hamas and all other resistance movements”, to prevent any widening of the conflict, and to contain, if only partially, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 19 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: