Egypt Silent as Neighbors Wage Battles
CAIRO — Again and again over decades, Egypt has leapt in to play the role of mediator during hostilities between the Palestinians and the Israelis, including the time two years ago when Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, helped broker a cease-fire after eight days of bloodshed in the Gaza Strip.
But in the latest battle, the Egyptians appear to be barely lifting a finger, leaving the combatants without a go-between as the Palestinian death toll mounts.
Officials with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement in Gaza, said on Wednesday they had seen almost no sign of an Egyptian effort to defuse the crisis, in sharp contrast to previous conflicts under Mr. Morsi and President Hosni Mubarak. Making matters worse, according to Palestinian officials, Egypt continued to keep its side of the border all but sealed on Wednesday, barring even humanitarian aid.
Egypt’s apparent willingness to sit out the crisis reflected shifts in its foreign policy under its new president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who led the military ouster last summer of Mr. Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a close ally of Hamas. The Brotherhood was outlawed after Mr. Morsi’s ouster, and accused by Egyptian officials of terrorism during a crackdown on the government’s opponents. In various plots against Egypt described by the authorities, Hamas was often cast as the Brotherhood’s menacing accomplice.
Facing greater isolation, and with Israel vowing to expand its military offensive, Hamas leaders were left pining for the now-jailed Mr. Morsi, who provided the movement a critical international ally as well as a face-saving exit from the last round of fighting with Israel, in 2012.
“It does not feel like Egypt is even playing a role in the war,” said a senior Hamas official, who insisted on anonymity to talk about diplomatic contacts. In other conflicts, he said, Egyptian intelligence officials would “communicate, intervene and move quickly.” Now, Hamas had hardly heard a word.
Egyptian officials dismissed the notion that they were sitting the conflict out. In a statement, the president’s spokesman said he had made “extensive contacts” with the parties in order “to spare the Palestinian people the scourge of Israeli military operations.” The contacts, though, seemed to skirt around Hamas.
There were other signs that the government was trying to ignore the latest fighting, which led the news in privately owned Egyptian newspapers. In the state-run Al-Ahram on Wednesday, it ran smaller, below the fold.
“There was an initial attempt to calm things down. This has ceased,” said Issandr el-Amrani, the North Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, who is based in Egypt. Instead, the Egyptians appeared to be biding their time and angling for concessions in exchange for any mediating role, he said, including from the United States, which held back some military aid from Egypt after the overthrow of Mr. Morsi.
Under Mr. Mubarak, Egyptian diplomacy was used to put out fires while never bringing Palestinians and Israelis closer to a final settlement of the conflict. Egypt had “traditionally been at odds with Hamas, but also very concerned about how escalating violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict plays out domestically,” said Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation in New York.
After Egypt’s 2011 revolt that overthrew Mr. Mubarak, there were loud demands that the nation’s foreign policy more accurately reflect popular sympathy for the Palestinians, and early signs of a change in tone, as Egypt’s Foreign Ministry referred to the blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt as “shameful.”
After the cease-fire in November 2012, Hamas officials spoke of the importance of tranquil relations with Israel, to allow the Brotherhood to put its house in order in Egypt. But Gazans received little relief from the Egyptian side. Mr. Morsi talked about the necessity of keeping the border open, but his government shut the smuggling tunnels to Gaza, flooding some with sewage. The government said it was necessary to stem the flow of arms, but it also cut off a lifeline for vital supplies.
Since Mr. Morsi’s ouster, Egypt’s treatment of Gaza and Hamas has almost exclusively reflected the preoccupations of the security establishment, which is battling militants in Sinai and views Gaza as a burden that Israel is trying to shift to Egypt, Mr. Hanna said.
On Wednesday, with the Israeli bombing campaign intensifying, Palestinians on the border tried to get the Egyptians to ease the closure, according to Wael Abo Mohsen, a spokesman for the Gaza Border Crossing Authority. “They have not answered us,” he said.