On Gaza's southern front, Egypt offers aid, not political leverage
Egypt brokered a successful 2012 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Its new rulers, who ousted an Islamist president last year, may be less keen on helping Hamas this time.
El Arish, Egypt
The last time Israel waged all-out war on Hamas in 2012, Egypt brokered the ceasefire that ended it. Under former President Mohamed Morsi, fraternal relations with Hamas, a fellow Muslim Brotherhood alum, got even warmer.
But this time around, Egypt's political role in Gaza, a territory it once governed, is far more circumscribed. Indeed, it's currently limited to helping Gazans like Moaid Egdaeh, who was evacuated last week to Egypt for medical care, one of fifteen wounded civilians allowed to cross its tightly guarded border.
Leaning into his crutches and staring at the bright orange cast that encases his leg, Mr. Egdaeh describes his ordeal. "I was sleeping when the Israelis ordered my family to leave our home," he says. “When the warning rocket hit the ground outside, I threw myself from the second floor.”
By Sunday afternoon, the death toll in Gaza had passed 160, with over 1,100 people injured. Thousands of Palestinians fled northern parts of Gaza, after Israel warned it was targeting it as part of its campaign to stop rocket attacks.
As the Gaza crisis has escalated, Egypt has shied away from a mediating role. Its humanitarian response has also been tepid: The Rafah border has been opened for a limited number of ambulances, as well as Egyptian passport holders, but has also closed repeatedly due to security concerns.
Egypt’s own fight against a stuttering Islamist insurgency in the Sinai has led to the border area being sealed for hours at a time. Egyptian doctors waiting on stand-by in the nearest hospital to the border say Gaza’s health ministry has sent fewer cases than expected.
But in Gaza’s hospitals, the situation has grown dire - at least five health facilities have been damaged by airstrikes in their vicinities, and there are severe shortages of medical supplies, according to the United Nations. On Saturday night, the Shifa hospital, close to the Egyptian border, said its morgue was full.
“I know I’m lucky to have made it to Egypt,” says Egdaeh, who was treated at El-Arish hospital, which lies roughly 31 miles from the border. “Many others are struggling to do the same. It’s very difficult now the crossing is closed and people are trapped inside.”
Inside the hospital, a ward reserved for Gazan evacuees was quiet as most had been sent straight to Cairo. Health officials say El-Arish is tending to non-urgent cases, or those whom doctors do not expect to survive.
'Intransigence and stubbornness'
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has warned of the dangers of further escalation in Gaza. He has also criticized the “intransigence and stubbornness” of both sides in the conflict. But he hasn't stepped forward as a mediator.
Sisi's cautious response to the Gaza crisis underscores his administration's balancing act between its desire to see Israel weaken Hamas without risking its own border security and street-level anger in Egypt over a policy seen as favoring Israel.
Sisi, a former military general who led the overthrow of Morsi, views Hamas as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood; both are blacklisted as terrorist groups in Egypt. Morsi is currently standing trial for allegedly spying on behalf of Hamas.
But Egypt also fears that conflict in Gaza could further destabilize its border area. Since Morsi’s overthrow, the Egyptian military has conducted an intensive campaign to reclaim the long-neglected area from Islamist militants.
An Al-Qaeda linked militant group based in North Sinai has carried out repeated bombings across the Egyptian mainland, targeting security personnel. On Christmas Eve, the group claimed responsibility for an attack on a security headquarters in Mansoura, killing 16 policemen.
Harder to negotiate a ceasefire
According to Daniel Kurtzer, a former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, the Sisi administration is braced to negotiate a ceasefire, but has little interest in doing so publicly before both parties are amenable to a solution.
“Egypt would not accomplish much by trying to insert itself into the fray now, and is likely waiting for some indication from one side or the other of a readiness to start negotiating,” says Amb. Kurtzer, now a professor of Middle East Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
“The ceasefire negotiations this time will be far more difficult than in 2012, as the positions of both Israel and Hamas have hardened considerably on such issues as prisoners, access to Gaza, supervision of the ceasefire, and the like.”
But the bigger shift may be on Egypt's side: Sisi likely commands even less trust from Hamas than former dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown by a popular revolt in 2011. While Mubarak repressed Islamist political movements at home, he was able to play a brokering role with Hamas.
Navigating the Egyptian street
Under Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood maintained close relations with Hamas, enabling him to broker the 2012 ceasefire to international acclaim. Spin forward a year and a half and Morsi’s successor has demonized Hamas while the Egyptian street is still broadly supportive of the Palestinian cause.
In a statement Saturday, several parties and revolutionary groups called on Sisi to permanently open the Rafah crossing. “We want to send a message to say that despite our internal political problems, we are still there for Gaza’s civilians,” says Walid Dawoud, a spokesman for the leftist al-Dustour Party.
Zack Gold, an independent Middle East analyst, says the Sisi administration is facing a test of its hostile stance towards Hamas. “The thing to look for is how its past year of rhetoric against Hamas plays out in reality. Is that rhetoric believed by the political, intelligence and defense leadership? We’re about to find out.”
Egypt’s relationship with Israel, which seized control of Gaza in 1967, is also complicated. While security cooperation has increased as military operations in the Sinai have intensified, Egyptian voters remain hostile to Israel.
Back inside North Sinai’s El-Arish hospital, doctors say they can do little but sit back and wait for what the coming days will bring.
“As medical professionals, we stay out of the politics,” says hospital director Dr Sami Anwar. “But we are ready to do our best.”