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The Cairo Talks

Is Gaza Becoming an Internal Problem for Egypt’s Government?

by ALESSANDRA BAJEC

Israeli airstrikes resumed bombarding Gaza after a 24-hour truce in Gaza collapsed last Tuesday, following one month and a half of intense fighting so far counting over 2,098 Palestinians killed and more than 10,550 injured. Another temporary ceasefire failed, another freeze of talks in Cairo, yet both sides ready to go back to the negotiating table to strike a long-term deal. Or rather, the Palestinian delegation renewing attempts at negotiations, and left waiting for a response from Israeli negotiators on a new truce proposal they submitted.

Cairo talks are based on an Egyptian proposal that meets some Palestinian demands, such as easing Israel’s blockade on Gaza, however it postpones discussions on key areas of disagreement like Hamas’ demand for a full lifting of the blockade and re-opening of an airport and seaport, and Israeli calls for Hamas to disarm.

Crucially, Egypt-led ceasefire talks –yet again- stalled because of a ‘no’ (or ‘conditional yes’) to Hamas’ demand backed by all Palestinian factions, including the Palestine Authority, that any halt to the fighting involve a complete lifting of  8-year siege on the Gaza Strip, imposed by Israel and accommodated by the Egyptian government, that has ravaged the enclave’s economy and turned Gaza into an “open-air prison”.

A very big request, it seems, for Israel but also for Egypt which hasn’t given signs of willingness to open the Rafah border crossing, with few exceptions to allow entry of aid and critically wounded Gazans, despite claims by the Egyptian government claims that the Rafah border is open.

Instead, Egypt advised the Palestinians that an easing or lifting of the blockade would only be possible in exchange for demilitarization of Gaza. In other words, depriving the Palestinian people of its right of resistance to occupation -recognized by international law- and leaving Israel with full (unchallenged) power to remain an occupier.

Something that clearly makes the current negotiation efforts complicated is the hardline stance of the Egyptian president against Hamas. That goes in line with Sisi’s well-known animosity towards the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, and the resulting close relationship with Israel since the military-backed toppling of President Morsi just over a year ago. Sisi government has even accused Hamas of conspiring with Morsi and the Brotherhood against the Egyptian state.

When Egypt put forward its vey first ceasefire proposal for Gaza ceasefire, last 14 July, Sisi publicly announced the proposal, only coordinated with Israel, without officially consulting Hamas, drafted for rejection. In general, Egypt hasn’t been keen to make concessions that might enhance leverage with Hamas.

On the other hand, unlike under Morsi, the current Egyptian president doesn’t have the influence on Hamas that could help bring the hostilities to an end. Nor Sisi has, so far, prompted a serious foreign policy move that would give him the international credibility he needs since his election.

As Israel and the Palestinians struggle to reach a lasting cease-fire, Egyptian mediators don’t appear pressed to strike a durable deal. Egypt’s policy towards Gaza reflects an unchanged domestic agenda prioritizing national security interests over any involvement with the Gaza conflict.

Like his predecessors, Sisi doesn’t want to inherit the Gaza burden. He doesn’t want responsibility for humanitarian or security affairs there. That’s clear. Egypt has thus insisted on keeping the border with Gaza  largely closed as much as it has continued to destroy tunnels.

That all said, Egypt cannot afford to pretend nothing is happening in Gaza, whether a breakthrough in the talks means something or not to Sisi.

Calls from Egyptian citizens to open the Rafah crossing with Gaza raises enough attention on how the Egyptian government’s refusal to open the border closed makes it complicit in the current conflict. Egypt would be in breach of international humanitarian law if it continued to keep Rafah closed in conjunction with Israel’s operation in Gaz.,

Despite many Egyptians view of Hamas as an ally of Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian public largely shows sympathy for Gaza. And Sisi needs to act according to Egyptian public opinion. With the heavy Palestinian casualties resulting from Israel’s offensive, Egypt’s anti- Hamas fervor may come politically costly.

Coupled with that is the shift  in international opinion on the siege of Gaza, which more world leaders including President Obama have started to publicly question. But this is doesn’t seem to be the view shared by the Egyptian government.

Although any negotiation deal in Cairo will most likely include an increased role by Palestinian President Abbas, who was for the second time in bilateral talks with Sisi on Saturday, Hamas remains the key party in Gaza that Egypt should be dealing with.

Despite the unprecedented levels of violence throughout this latest war on Gaza, Israel hasn’t come any closer to its aim of defeating Palestinian resistance.

While Egypt-Israel cooperation may entail renewed efforts to soften Hamas and dictate terms for a ceasefire in Israel’s favour in the short run, such alliance may well later prove counterproductive, given the new resilience among Palestinians over the past month.

With Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank and everywhere highly sympathetic to Gaza, Egypt would risk being blamed for growing devastation of Palestinians if it failed in its role of mediator as the death toll increases by the day.

Fatah moved to close ranks with Hamas on unified set of demands that Egypt now cannot ignore. In addition, President Abbas and Hamas’s exiled leaded Meshaal urged the United Nations, on Friday, to draw up a “timetable” for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories to end, Qatar state media reported.

On Thursday, Britain, France and Germany put forward key points of a new UNSC resolution calling for an immediate and sustainable ceasefire, and the lifting of Israel’s blockade on Gaza.

The longer the war drags on, the more Gaza becomes a domestic problem for the Egyptian president. It’s in Sisi’s interest not to carry the burden of a prolonged bloody conflict next door, refocus on Egypt’s national priorities, and maintain his image in the eyes of the Egyptian public.

Else, we’re likely to see other mini-truces, resumption of more violence, and less and less credit for Egypt in its responsibility of securing a workable long-term peace agreement.

Alessandra Bajec lived in Palestine between June 2010 and May 2011 starting to work as a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in various Palestinian newswires, the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, The Majalla, among others.