Egypt’s regional role changing in Israel-Hamas crisis

By Linda Gradstein The Media Line

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is in Egypt today in an attempt to push forward a cease-fire between Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement, although a truce still appears to be days, if not weeks, away. Hamas today officially rejected an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire.

Flag of Egypt.

Flag of Egypt.

Palestinian officials said Abbas has proposed that Palestinian Authority forces supervise the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Privately Israeli officials said they did not oppose this idea. If accepted it would mean the return of Palestinian Authority troops in Gaza for the first time since 2007 when Hamas seized control of Gaza’s 1.8 million Palestinians.

On the ninth day of the clashes, Hamas fired dozens of rockets at southern Israel and Israel launched air strikes on targets throughout Gaza, amid efforts to get rid of rocket launchers in northern Gaza. More than 200 Palestinians have died in the fighting, and more than 1,200 have been injured. One Israeli died from a direct hit.

Both Israel and Hamas know that in the end there will be a cease-fire, although it is not clear if it will be before or after an Israeli ground invasion. Israel has called up 40,000 reservists and there is pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to launch a limited ground operation to hit Hamas’s ability to produce and launch rockets.

But if and when a cease-fire comes, it will come via Egypt, as it has in the past conflicts of 2006, 2008, and 2012.

“Egypt has a role to play regardless of the regime type and the ideological orientation of the ruling elite in Egypt,” Gamal Soltan, an associate professor of political science at the American University of Cairo told The Media Line. “Egypt is working for a cease-fire despite the hostility between the regime and Hamas.”

Hamas strongly opposed the overthrow of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and the imprisonment of hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The new government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has cracked down hard on the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, taking away a source of Hamas’s livelihood and intensifying the economic crisis in Gaza. Hamas, as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, had close ties to the Morsi government.

At the same time, the Egyptian intelligence and security services have maintained close ties with Israel. They share common concerns including the rise of jihadist groups in Sinai.

“There have been differences between Israel and Egypt over the Palestinian issue,” Soltan said. “Yet Israel and Egypt have quietly and professionally maintained their ties.”

While in the past, Egypt was the primary mediator between Israel and Hamas, this time at least Hamas does not trust the Egyptians.

“In the past the Egyptian government was seen by both the Islamists and the secular Palestinian leadership as even-handed enough to mediate between the two of them as well as between them and Israel, that’s not the case any more,” said Michele Dunne, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. “This time Hamas wants to bring in Turkey or Qatar because there’s so little trust with Egypt.”

Dunne said Egypt will have to be involved because one of the key Hamas demands is access to the Rafah crossing point. If Hamas succeeds in achieving an outlet for Gaza’s population, it could gain strength. That, however, does not seem likely.

Both Egyptian and Israeli analysts believe that Hamas will come out of this current round of conflict weaker than before. On one hand, Hamas has succeeded in firing rockets further than ever before — long-range rockets have traveled almost 100 miles, with barrages hitting Israel’s bohemian beach city of Tel Aviv and even the northern Israeli town of Haifa. Yet, mostly because of the Iron Dome anti-missile system, and the Israeli public’s discipline on entering shelters when the siren signals incoming rockets, there has been only one Israeli fatality, though several serious injuries.“Both Israel and Egypt feel that Hamas cannot stay in power,” said former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Tzvi Mazel. “Hamas wants to impose an Islamic state like the jihadi movements in Syria and Iraq, and that is dangerous for both Israel and Egypt.”