Containment or carnage

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 21 Feb 2024

Cairo is increasingly concerned over the failure to secure a ceasefire in Gaza.



“Time is critical. We need to secure a ceasefire before Ramadan to avert a brutal Israeli attack that could happen in days, or at the latest within weeks,” said an informed Egyptian official.

Speaking on Sunday, following the failure of high-level intelligence talks in Cairo to push towards a ceasefire, the official said that with less than three weeks remaining before Ramadan Egypt has been working ceaselessly to promote a ceasefire, “temporary as it might be”.

A temporary ceasefire, he argued, could spare the over 1.5 million Palestinians crammed into Rafah. “It will be carnage if Israel attacks without allowing these Palestinians humanitarian passage to get out safely from Rafah,” he said.

This week, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said that Israel will proceed with a ground offensive in Rafah if Hamas does not agree to hand over all Israeli hostages by 10 March. Ramadan starts on 11 March.

“We are still trying, and we have not lost hope to have a deal in place before Ramadan,” said the source. Together with other mediators and go-betweens, including Qatar and the Americans, Egypt is trying to “make it possible for Hamas” to agree to the handover of the remaining Israeli hostages in return for a ceasefire that could last for a few weeks, increased entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza and “an arrangement for the safety” of Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Last November, following mediation by Egypt and Qatar, with the support of the US, Hamas released some hostages. In the weeks that followed, Israel acknowledged that its attacks on Gaza had killed several Israelis being held by Hamas.

Pressure has been increasing on the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to do whatever it takes to get the hostages back. “Netanyahu is fighting for his political career and thinks that getting the hostages back while the war is still ongoing will represent a significant political victory,” said a Cairo-based foreign diplomat.

Other foreign diplomats in Egypt say that even if all the remaining hostages are freed and a deal is reached on the exit of Hamas leaders and the creation of some humanitarian passages for Palestinians in Rafah, Netanyahu will still move on with a ground offensive.

“Netanyahu wants to show the Israelis that he can send troops into Rafah and destroy the remaining network of tunnels that Hamas has been using for its operations,” said one diplomat. “There is no way that he will backtrack on this. He had said the same thing to everyone he has spoken with in the past few days, including US President Joe Biden.”

Cairo-based foreign diplomats say they are hopeful that the political and legal pressure that is being put on Israel will convince Netanyahu to spare Palestinians the massive bloodshed that will inevitably come if an offensive begins without Palestinian civilians being evacuated.

This week, the UN Security Council was presented with two draft resolutions on Gaza, one Arab-backed and calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, the second put forward by the US, and a temporary ceasefire “as soon as practicable”.

At the same time, 26 out of 27 European Union states adopted a political statement calling on Israel to avert a ground offensive in Rafah. The exception was Hungary.

On Monday, at the request of the UN General Assembly, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) started a week-long hearing on the legality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories since 1967. Late last month, the ICJ fell short of granting South Africa a request for a provisional measure to order an immediate ceasefire in Gaza to avert continued genocide. In January, and again on Friday, the ICJ instead demanded that Israel ensure genocide is not perpetuated in Gaza and the safety of civilians in Rafah is safeguarded.

Egypt, which has presented two memoranda to the ICJ on Israeli practices in the occupied Palestinian territories, was due to make an oral argument before the court on 21 February. Egypt has already refuted Israeli claims that Cairo is responsible for the limited entry of humanitarian aid through the Rafah crossing.

According to an Egyptian official, Egypt’s oral argument will reflect its position since the war on Gaza started. “We are not pursuing bilateral escalation. We are trying to use diplomatic, political, and legal tools to find an exit from the current crisis,” he said.

He argued that the “worst-case scenario” could extend beyond a brutal Israeli ground offensive in Rafah without allowing civilians a safe exit “north into the Strip” and there are “serious concerns” over an Israeli-Palestinian confrontation in the West Bank given continued Israeli provocations, including settler harassment of Palestinians and the expansion of Israeli settlements in Eastern Jerusalem. The recently announced Israeli plan to prevent Muslims from praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque, to which Hamas responded by calling on Palestinians in the West Bank and inside Israel to move towards the holy site, has further fuelled concerns.

Egypt is worried that an Israeli attack on Rafah could force large numbers of Palestinian civilians across its border as they try to escape the Israeli killing machine. This week, Egypt denied setting up a zone to host Palestinians who might cross the border in the face of an imminent Israeli offensive, saying that it was instead working on a plan to provide relief should an offensive occur.

In press statements this week, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that Egypt will manage any situation that might unfold in Rafah.

Meanwhile, Cairo is closely monitoring developments in the confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.

“So far, we think that Hizbullah is trying to avoid any military escalation with Israel though we cannot be certain that will hold,” said an Egyptian source. He added that Egypt hopes Hamas will show the same “realism and pragmatism” that Hizbullah has been showing.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 February 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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