GazaWATCH: Egypt

Egypt first inserted itself into the Gaza Strip in 1948 when, after an Arab defeat during Israel’s War of Independence, Egypt took control of the Gaza area and put the population under a military government for nearly a decade. In 1957, a legislative council was elected, converting the Egyptian military authority to a civilian one. Cairo had little concern for developing Gaza or supporting Palestinian nationalism,[1] however, and the Strip received only moderate investment in infrastructure between 1948 and 1967, when Israel gained control of the area as a result of the Six Day War. In fact, while occupying Gaza, Cairo’s main concern with the Strip was how to best use the land as a launching pad to attack Israel and the land’s people as a pawn for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s real cause: pan-Arabism. To this end, Egypt often sponsored raids into Israel by Palestinian fida’iyyun, or self-sacrificers, at times spurring reprisals from Israel.[2]

From 1948 to 1979, Egypt and Israel were officially at a state of war with each other. On March 26, 1979, under Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, ending all belligerences between them. Under the terms of the Camp David Accords, Israel relinquished control of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt for the sake of peace, giving Egypt a direct border with the Gaza Strip and making Cairo a significant player in Gaza’s affairs. As the countries normalized relations, the two devised a coordinated policy towards the Gaza Strip.

Under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who fell to an uprising in February 2011, Egypt was actively involved in Gaza; its involvement was influenced by Cairo’s need to show solidarity with the Palestinian people as well as its desire to hold onto its longtime status as one of the most powerful and influential Arab nations in the Middle East. And with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict being the hot-button issue that it is, one of the best ways to illustrate power is by asserting some control over the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

Between 2007 and 2011, the Egyptian government worked closely with Israel to curb Hamas’s power in the Gaza Strip by enforcing a blockade on the area of land, assisting in limiting Hamas’s smuggling capabilities across the Sinai Peninsula, and arresting Hamas leaders. As an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood network, the most serious political opposition to Mubarak’s regime, Cairo viewed the Hamas organization on its border as a threat.

Egypt currently faces a time of transition. It is difficult to predict the status of Egyptian-Israeli and Egyptian-Gazan relations in the future, which will depend on the policies adopted by the country’s next government.

In recent years, Egypt has played a major role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the following ways:

1. Negotiations

Egypt has often acted as a mediator first between Israel and Fatah, and then later as roles changed, between Hamas, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority (now controlled by Fatah).

Egypt played an important role in the negotiations leading to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 €”the first Middle East peace meeting attended by all parties in the region. Since that conference, Cairo has played a large part in promoting Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. In 1996, President Hosni Mubarak hosted the Sharm El-Sheikh “Summit of the Peacemakers” with U.S. President Bill Clinton and in 2000 he hosted two summits in an effort to resume the Camp David negotiations that stalled in July of that year. In June 2003, Cairo again held a summit on the peace process, this time with U.S. President George Bush. Egypt also worked with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to ensure stability following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which ended the Israeli military presence that existed on the Gaza-Egypt border for security purposes. Egypt agreed to replace that presence with its own forces charged with guaranteeing the continuance of tight security in and out of Gaza.

Cairo continued its role as mediator even after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007. In 2008, Egypt was responsible forbrokering a six-month cease-fire between Israel and the terrorist organization, which went into effect that June, although Hamas fired rockets at Israel during the lull and, as a result, hostilities ensued shortly after the cease-fire expired. The Egyptian government continues in its role as negotiator between Israel, Hamas, and other militant factions in Gaza when it comes to establishing cease-fires during times of increased rocket attacks and Israeli counter-attacks. Cairo also hosted representatives of Israel and Hamas in an attempt to reach an agreement over the return of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas in 2006. Those negotiations came to fruition in October 2011, when Shalit was released in a prisoner swap deal.

Continuing to play a prominent role in Palestinian affairs even after Mubarak fell, in the first half of 2011 Egypt’s interim government brokered an agreement between Hamas and Fatah, bringing the two factions one step closer to reconciling their differences and creating a Palestinian unity government.

2. Operation Cast Lead

While Cairo condemned Israel’s attack on Gaza in December 2008—an announcement that some analysts interpreted as a necessary concession to appease the Arab World—the Egyptian foreign minister also issued a sharply worded statement asserting that Hamas brought Israel’s actions upon itself. Mubarak also reportedly told a delegation of European ministers in a closed conversation that Hamas must not be allowed to win the conflict with Israel. Owing to former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s meeting with Mubarak hours before Israel’s assault began, there was also speculation that Cairo knew about and even authorized Operation Cast Lead in advance. Conscious of its reputation in the Arab World, Egypt attempted to remain as neutral as possible during the hostilities, walking the tightrope between Israel and Hamas.

3. The Gaza Blockade

Media reports often fail to mention Egypt’s role in enforcing the Gaza blockade under Mubarak’s reign. Indeed, when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in July 2007, Egypt immediately closed the border in refusal to recognize the regime. Over the next three-and-a-half-years, Egypt only sporadically opened its border with Gaza for food and medicine as well as for people in need of medical treatment or for students studying abroad.

In January 2008, Palestinian militants detonated explosives, destroying a section of the Gaza-Egypt border. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans flooded into Egypt. While Cairo at first allowed the crossings to occur on humanitarian grounds, it re-sealed the border within 12 days of it being forced open and warned that violators would be punished with broken legs.[3]

Under Mubarak, Egypt monitored its border with Gaza in an attempt to stop weapons smuggling. In late 2009, Egypt began constructing an enormous steel wall that, when complete, was to be impenetrable at six-to-seven miles long and extend almost 65 feet underground. After Mubarak’s ouster, however, reports surfaced confirming that the interim Egyptian government stopped construction on the wall and that Cairo planned to permanently open its border with Gaza, which it did on May 28, 2011. Under Egypt’s new rules, a total of 550 people are allowed to leave Gaza and enter Egypt per day. At this time, the border is only open to pedestrian traffic and crossing from Egypt to Gaza is permitted.

4. Humanitarian Aid to Gaza

Unlike Israel, which for years has provided electricity, water, and thousands of tons of humanitarian aid each week to the people of Gaza, the government of Egypt has not maintained a regular aid system to the region. However, Egypt occasionally assists in this regard.

Before Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, Cairo only occasionally opened its border to permit special shipments of medical suppliesthrough to Gaza, and Palestinians in need of medical treatment into Egypt. During Operation Cast Lead, Egypt stocked its border with Gaza with helicopters, ambulances, and doctors to be deployed into the Strip if needed. Moreover, after the Gaza Flotilla crisis in May 2010, Egypt permitted aid destined for Gaza to be searched at the nearby port of el-Arish in the Sinai before being passed on to the Strip.

The Future of Egyptian-Gazan relations

Though Egypt might naturally be more closely aligned with the Arab residents of Gaza, the Mubarak government was not overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. With a common enemy—Hamas—at their borders, Egypt and Israel witnessed considerable agreement on policy measures in dealing with Gaza between 2007 and 2011.

Now that Mubarak has been forced out, the shape of future relations between Egypt, Israel, and the Gaza Strip remains an open question. Perhaps foreshadowing future events, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi met with two Hamas leaders in Gaza at the end of March 2011 to discuss Egypt’s role in the Gaza blockade, the Hamas-Fatah rift, and Palestinian detainees in Egypt. Shortly thereafter, an Egyptian-brokered Palestinian unity agreement was signed and Cairo opened its border with Gaza. As Mahmoud al-Zahar, Hamas’s minister of foreign relations, told reporters after his March meeting with al-Arabi, he sensed “a new attitude” from Cairo.

[1] Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War (New York: Presidio Press, 2003), 9 & 13.
[2] Ibid., 8-9.
[3] “Ruling Palestine I: Gaza Under Hamas,” International Crisis Group, Middle East Report 73 (2008): 5.