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Why Egypt is lending its support to the Palestinians

Egypt's support for the Palestinians in the latest conflict — in which Cairo helped broker a cease-fire — has drawn attention among observers who see it as a policy shift.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during a press conference with French President following their meeting at the Elysee presidential Palace on Dec. 7, 2020 in Paris, as part of al-Sisi's three-day controversial state visit to France, with activists warning Paris not to turn a blind eye to Cairo's rights record with a red carpet welcome.

Egypt has successfully brokered a cease-fire between Israel and  Hamas, effectively ending 11 days of hostilities that have killed hundreds of Palestinians in the Gaza strip and 12 Israelis. The truce was announced May 20 by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said his security Cabinet had agreed to accept the Egyptian initiative for a bilateral unconditional cease-fire. 

Egypt had earlier joined other Arab countries in condemning Israel's latest assaults on Gaza and in calling for support of the Palestinians. The rare rebuke of Israel by Egypt has drawn attention given Cairo's warming of ties with Tel Aviv in recent years and the fact that the Egyptian authorities had perceived Hamas, the Islamist group ruling Gaza, as a branch of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Unlike other Arab governments that have vented their frustration and anger over Israel's incessant bombardment of Gaza by merely condemning the Israeli aggression, the Egyptian leadership has taken concrete steps toward ending the violence.

The latest Israeli airstrikes and ground offensive in the Gaza Strip came in retaliation for a barrage of rockets fired into Israel by Hamas. The rocket attacks were provoked by an assault on Palestinian worshippers by Israeli security forces at Al-Aqsa Mosque after protests erupted following noon prayers on the last Friday of Ramadan to condemn Israeli settlers' attempts to forcibly evict tens of Palestinian families from their homes in the Jerusalem Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood some days earlier. 

As the violence escalated, an Egyptian security delegation traveled to Gaza and Tel Aviv May 14 to hold talks with Hamas and Israeli officials in an attempt to broker a cease-fire. Israel rejected Cairo's offer, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed instead "to step up the intensity of the Israel Defense Forces attacks against Gaza terrorists."

Following Israel's rejection of Egypt's truce proposal, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry condemned "the Israeli violations at the walls of Al-Aqsa Mosque." His remarks came at an Arab League meeting via videoconference. He also said, "Egypt has extensively reached out to Israel and other concerned countries urging them to exert all possible efforts to prevent deterioration of the situation in Jerusalem" but regretted that "we did not get the necessary response." 

On May 18, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who was visiting France, pledged $500 million in aid to rebuild Gaza once calm returns to the enclave.

In a move described as "exceptional" by an official at the Gaza border, Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing with Gaza May 15 — a public holiday in Egypt for Eid al-Fitr — to allow Palestinians injured in the Israeli airstrikes entry into Egypt for treatment at Egyptian hospitals. The opening of the Rafah border crossing — the only crossing point between Egypt and the Gaza Strip — indefinitely is indeed a rare move as the Rafah-Gaza frontier usually remains sealed during public holidays.

The Health Ministry has sent an emergency medical team to the Rafah border to examine Palestinian casualties, along with fully equipped ambulances to transport them to designated hospitals in the northern Sinai Peninsula, Ismailia and Cairo. No less than 11 hospitals, including six in Cairo, have been allocated for treatment of wounded Palestinians, according to the state-owned Ahram Online. In addition, a convoy of medical aid, food supplies, fuel and petroleum products was dispatched to Gaza May 17 with banners on the trucks carrying the supplies reading "in solidarity with the Palestinians from the state and people of Egypt." 

The shift in Egypt's policy vis-a-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has also been clear in the noticeable change in the religious discourse with Al-Azhar scholar and preacher Omar Hashem using the May 14 Friday sermon at Al-Azhar, broadcast on national television, to call for the unity of Muslims and an Islamic Deterrence Force to extract Jerusalem from the world's "foreign vagabonds."

Hashem also said that what was taken by force must be restored by force. He lambasted the "oppressive Zionists" for "trampling on human rights and on the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque" and "inciting against (other heavenly) religions with their blasphemy." 

Referring to a hadith, he said he was praying for the fulfillment of the hadith's prophecy that Muslims would ultimately kill the Jews. 

Hashem also slammed international human rights organizations and Arab and world leaders for their "disgraceful and cowardly silence" in the face of the atrocities committed by Israel. Hashem's unusually fiery sermon had apparently been given a prior nod from the Ministry of Islamic Endowments as the sermons of all preachers and imams are pre-approved by the state and are often used as a propaganda tool to push government messaging to the public. 

Meanwhile, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb has also been unusually vocal in his criticism of Israeli policies, describing the Israeli raid on Al-Aqsa Mosque worshippers earlier this month as "Zionist terror" and "a violation of the sanctity of the prayers." Expressing Al-Azhar's solidarity with the people of Palestine in a statement released May 8, he denounced the global silence on the escalation in Gaza as "shameful."

The moves signal a marked shift in Egypt's policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians — in particular Hamas, previously regarded by the Egyptian authorities as posing a threat to Egypt's security and accused of being behind terror attacks carried out against the Egyptian army and police.

Hamas, however, has undergone a transformation since 2017: It has revised its charter to prioritize politics over resistance and most importantly, it has distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood in a bid to regain Egypt's trust and improve ties with the Egyptian leadership — a main power broker in the region that has helped Israel maintain the blockade against Gaza.

While Mustapha Kamel El Sayed, professor of political science at Cairo University, acknowledged that Egypt's stance vis-a-vis the latest violence in the Gaza Strip signals a change of heart on Egypt's part, he argued that the thaw in Egypt's previously frosty relations with Hamas "is not new or abrupt." 

He pointed to Egypt's recent mediation efforts between Palestinian factions to reconcile them ahead of Palestinian national elections that had been scheduled to take place this month but have been postponed at the behest of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He also noted that the Egyptian leadership no longer holds Hamas responsible for terrorist attacks in Sinai, adding that such attacks are on the decline, which has allowed the Egyptian authorities to reconsider their position vis-a-vis Hamas.

Sayed also believes that Egypt's declared support for the Palestinians is an attempt by the former to reinvigorate its traditional role as regional mediator between the Palestinians and Israel. 

"Moreover, Egypt is wary of normalization of ties between Israel and some of the other Arab countries especially the United Arab Emirates," Sayed told Al-Monitor. He noted that the UAE's recent discussions with Israel on joint oil and gas projects including a proposed oil pipeline linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean "have been eyed with skepticism by Egypt, which is concerned the latter project may hurt Egypt's economy." 

The so-called Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline project would allow the UAE to export crude oil via Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat to the Mediterranean port of Ashkelon and from there to Europe, creating an alternative route to Egypt's Suez Canal, which had traditionally been the only route to transport Asian-produced oil to Europe. 

Mustafa el-Fiqi, a former diplomat and analyst, denied that there is a shift in Egyptian policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians. "What we are seeing is merely a continuation of Egypt's historic role as a key regional player," he told Al-Monitor. "The Palestinian cause has always been a priority for Egypt."

He also hinted that the moves made by the Egyptian leadership to contain the crisis were an attempt to pacify the Egyptian public and avert the risk of popular unrest, especially as protests are outlawed in Egypt.

"If Egypt had kept the Rafah border crossing closed, it would have unleashed the wrath of many Palestinian sympathizers in the Arab and Muslim world, which would have made Egypt a partner in the crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinians," he said. 

Egyptian public opinion is divided over the crisis in Gaza; some rights activists are outraged by the scenes of violence emerging from the coastal enclave and are venting their fury on social media, while others are less concerned and remind Egyptians of Hamas' alleged complicity in the killing of Egyptian soldiers.

"Besides, the Israeli campaign of ethnic cleansing and the massacres it is committing are on a scale never seen before and so Egypt could not remain silent in the face of such violations," he noted.

He added, "Egypt is also worried about the violence spilling over into its own territory. After all, we have a shared border with Gaza. If the situation becomes even more volatile, there is a risk of this happening."

By opening the border to allow injured Palestinians to escape the violence, Egypt has chosen to adopt what Fiqi called "a middle of the road" or intermediate position. "Egypt has neither tightened the siege on Gaza nor is it allowing in tens of thousands of Palestinians to carry out projects in Sinai as spelled out by the Middle East economic plan proposed by the former US administration."

"The greatest support for the Palestinians so far has come from Egypt," Samir Farag, a senior strategist on Egypt's Defense and Advisory Board, told Al Monitor. Farag was quick to point out that "Egypt is not taking sides in this conflict — it is simply a mediator."

After the cease-fire was announced, Hassan Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University tweeted, "Now that Egypt has succeeded in brokering a truce, it should coordinate with other Arab countries to ensure that the truce is not just a temporary one leading to another war. Rather, it should be the beginning of a political process that guarantees the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the near future."    

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