If the bulldozing of Gaza demonstrated the determination of Israel and Hamas to persist with familiar strategies, it also revealed the lonely predicament of Egypt. From Israel’s formation in 1948 to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Egypt was intent on Israel’s destruction. Yet following Egypt’s defeat that year, President Anwar Sadat set in motion a process that culminated in the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979, thereby making Egypt the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel.Two years later Sadat was assassinated, but his successor Husni Mubarak continued a trajectory of normalization with Israel. By 1991, Foreign Minister ‘Amr Musa remarked that peace with Israel was “not a luxury but a need.”
Even as violence against Israel prevailed along all other borders, Egypt acted as negotiator, mediator, and critic of both Israeli and Palestinian militancy. The tenability of that approach, however, has come under strain since the recent conflict in Gaza.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, recognizing that the return of the region to the Palestinians was the sin qua non of a political resolution. Yet far from appeasing the Palestinians, Israel’s withdrawal strengthened the extreme wing of the resistance. Hamas, which formed out of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in 1988 to pursue the annihilation of Israel, obtained power by election in 2006. Hamas’ ascendancy and kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June of that year, provoked the return of Israeli forces, which enforced a crippling economic blockade, restricted trade, and carried out military operations against Hamas forces.
Israel’s blockade was an attempt to undermine the leadership of Hamas, and forcibly convince the population of a semi-independent Gaza to adhere to the more moderate political character and ideals of the West Bank’s Fatah (whose political objective
is a return to the pre-1967 borders only, not the destruction of Israel proper).
Hamas responded by speculative missile attacks which, apart from the fragile truce brokered by Egypt in the summer of 2008, provoked Israel to tighten the blockade. Hamas, in turn, stepped up its offensive and launched nearly 300 rockets and mortars into southern Israel between the 19th and 27th of December. Israel’s response took the world by surprise. Sixty-four combat aircraft dropped 108 laser-guided munitions on 40 Hamas targets, commencing a broad operation intended to deal ‘painful and surgical blows’ to the Hamas infrastructure. Israeli planes, soldiers, and tanks attacked Rafah on the Egypt border, South Gaza, the Islamic University in Gaza City, Zaytun, Bayt Hanun, Jabalya, and Bayt Lahiya before entering the myriad streets and alleys to fight tooth and nail against Hamas.
But “Operation Cast Lead” caused the deaths of many hundred Palestinian civilians, the wounding of thousands more, and a collapse of electricity and aid supplies across Gaza. Israel’s rage and the impossible precision required for fighting Hamas soldiers operating within the civilian population proved to be a catastrophic combination. No state or international body intervened. The awkwardness of a presidential transition and the United States’ ultimate allegiance to Israel rendered it ineffective. Iran, meanwhile, plainly subsidises Hamas and its objectives.
The United Nations— the only “impartial” body — was roundly ignored in its calls for a ceasefire. The only positively neutral entity (in the sense of being to some degree committed to both sides instead of neither) is Egypt, but its predicament is extremely awkward in light of its demographic composition and zigzagging history of allegiance. Egypt supports the Palestinians’ rights to Gaza, but opposes Hamas for three main reasons.
The militants regularly breach the Egypt-Gaza border when smuggling weapons through underground tunnels, they operate autonomously in Egyptian territory, and most importantly they embody the worrisome spread of Iranian influence. So fraught is the relationship that on occasion Turkey has had to mediate between Egypt and Hamas as Egypt tries to mediate between Hamas and Israel. Since the Egypt of today prefers to strengthen relations with the US, the EU, and, broadly speaking, the “global North,” it stands to gain from the destruction of Hamas. However, the massive loss of Palestinian civilian life in Gaza made condemning Hamas a risky business.
Egypt’s predominantly Muslim population demanded the government rather denounce Israel as well as open the Rafah border to aid and movement (turning a blind eye to the smuggling of arms that would follow). While senior Egyptian figures did
criticize Israel, with the Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Ghayt criticizing its disregard for international consensus in pursuing the attack, the government kept the border sealed. Anti-government demonstrations flared up; Egyptian police quelled street protests in the Fatah and Azhar mosques in Cairo.
The government appeared even more isolated when Saudi Arabia, which enjoys a comparatively good relationship with the United States and frequently rebuts Iranian calls to arms against Israel, put regional differences aside in denouncing the Zionist state in stronger terms than Egypt had. Undeterred, Mubarak, along with Ghayt, Nicolas Sarkozy, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and others, are now attempting to implement an ‘international’ policing of the Israel-Egypt border crossings, a military presence that would detect new digging and monitor the Sinai Peninsula for aboveground smuggling. Such a presence would be both pragmatic, preventing Hamas from importing arms into Gaza and provoking further IDF attacks, and symbolic, sending a powerful message that Egypt does not support terrorism. But while such a message may be well received in Brussels or Washington, it will provoke anger at home. Egypt’s Muslim population will resent the government’s attempt to gain political leverage out of a conflict whose greatest victims are innocent Palestinian Muslims.
Furthermore, if Egypt fails to prevent Hamas from smuggling arms into Gaza (a likely scenario, given the assistance Hamas receives from Sinai Bedouins, who receive handsome payment for digging tunnels), Egypt will be in the worst of all possible positions — criticized by Arab nations for supporting Israel and criticized by the “global North” for turning a blind eye to Hamas. If Mubarak accomplishes the nearimpossible goal of securing the border without alienating his own population, Egypt’s achievement will be immense.