In the wake of a series of deadly Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip early this month, Egypt has stepped up efforts aimed at brokering a ceasefire between Palestinian resistance groups and Tel Aviv.
“Egypt is talking to representatives from [Palestinian resistance factions] Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Israel in order to arrive at a tacit easing of hostilities,” Mohamed Basyouni, head of the Shura (upper parliamentary) Council’s committee for Arab affairs, and former Egyptian ambassador to Israel, told IPS.
Egyptian mediation efforts come in the wake of a ferocious six-day Israeli military incursion into the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip in early March that left more than 120 Palestinians dead. According to Tel Aviv, the assault was launched in retaliation for short-range rocket fire from the territory targeting nearby Israeli towns and settlements.
On 4 March, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit laid down the general outline of a proposed cessation of hostilities. “No missiles are to be fired on the Israelis, but the Israelis also are required not to respond in the manner that they have been responding over the last few days,” Aboul-Gheit was quoted as saying.
According to Basyouni, talks are aimed at “reaching a comprehensive understanding that would include a general ceasefire, an opening of Egypt’s border with Gaza and possible prisoner exchanges.” He added, however, that such an understanding “would not involve the signing of any official agreements.”
On 7 March, representatives from both Hamas and Islamic Jihad met with Egyptian officials in the Egyptian city of al-Arish to discuss Egyptian ceasefire proposals and the future of the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Shortly afterwards, Israeli defense ministry official Amos Gilad visited Cairo twice, where he also reportedly heard Egyptian plans for a cessation of hostilities.
Cairo’s mediation efforts initially appeared to bear fruit, with Israel refraining from attacks on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and a concomitant cessation of rockets fired by Palestinian resistance groups.
The peace was shattered on 12 March, however, when the Israeli military killed four Islamic Jihad leaders in a “targeted assassination” in the West Bank. The next day, the resistance faction retaliated by firing a volley of short-range rockets into southern Israel.
“The cessation of hostilities held for a week,” said Basyouni. “If Israel hadn’t broken it, it would have held longer — Jihad wouldn’t have retaliated.”
Hamas is also insistent that any proposed ceasefire plan also include a provision to lift the ongoing Israeli siege of the territory, which continues to prevent vital moneys and supplies from reaching the strip’s estimated 1.5 million inhabitants.
The group’s leadership further demands that the border between Egypt and Gaza — tightly sealed since February — be reopened by the Egyptian authorities. All other means in or out of the territory are closely controlled by the Israeli authorities.
Gaza’s dire humanitarian circumstances reached crisis proportions in January, when some half million Palestinians poured across the 14-kilometer border with Egypt into the northern Sinai Peninsula. Ten days later, after most itinerant Gazans had stocked up on essential supplies and gone home, Egyptian authorities resealed the border and closed the crossing at Rafah.
“There must be a commitment by Israel to end all of its aggression against our people, assassinations, killings and raids, and lift the siege [of Gaza] and reopen the crossings,” Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, said on 12 March when laying down the group’s conditions for a ceasefire.
Any understanding reached with Israel, he added, must apply to both the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank, which is run by the US-backed Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas.
Israeli officials, however, continue to reject the notion of dialogue with Hamas. On 20 March, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak vowed to continue military operations against targets in the Gaza Strip, reiterating the long-standing Israeli refusal to negotiate with what Tel Aviv considers a “terrorist organization.”
According to Abelaziz Shadi, coordinator for the Israeli studies program at Cairo University, Israel’s maximalist position can be attributed to the Hebrew state’s domestic politics.
“[Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert rejects the idea of a ceasefire because he is beholden to the right-wing parties in his government, which refuse to countenance the idea of making concessions to the Palestinians,” Shadi told IPS.
Egypt does not officially recognize Hamas in Gaza, control of which was seized by the resistance group last June. Nevertheless, say local commentators, Cairo is also aware of the need to maintain contacts with the besieged territory’s de facto rulers.
“Egypt is dealing with Hamas from a security perspective,” explained Basyouni. “And on the basis that Hamas represents a fact on the ground.”
Shadi agreed, noting that Egypt viewed the grave situation in Gaza “as having a serious effect on Egypt’s national security.” He added that, particularly after January’s influx of desperate Gazans, “Cairo is acutely aware of the dire humanitarian situation in the territory as a result of the Israeli siege.”
In a notable turn, the US administration — which also calls Hamas a “terrorist” organization — appears to be reconsidering its long-standing policy of politically and geographically isolating the Islamist group.
While in Brussels at a 6 March North Atlantic Treaty Organization ministerial meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared to lend support to Egypt’s Hamas-inclusive ceasefire initiative.
“We fully expect the Egyptians to carry out efforts … to try to improve the situation in Gaza,” Rice was quoted as saying in reference to Egypt’s recent attempts at mediation.
According to Egyptian political analyst Jihan Fawzi, Washington — like Cairo — has little choice but to recognize Hamas if it hopes to influence Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
“The US administration has begun changing its approach,” Fawzi wrote in the 14 March edition of independent daily al-Masri al-Youm. “The Americans have finally realized that Hamas cannot be ignored and must play a role in any Israel-Palestine peace settlement.”
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