Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-

Ahram Weekly

Gaza ‘No Longer Alone’

The Arab Spring is reshaping the Arab-Israeli conflict, writes Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly

On Wednesday 14 November Israel assassinated Hamas resistance commander Ahmed Al-Jabari. The Israeli occupation forces’ Operation Pillar of Defence was ready to proceed with a campaign on “terror sites” similar, one can only suppose, to previous bloody assaults on Gaza. What followed, though, did not play to the Israeli script.

Gaza’s resistance factions retaliated, not with the usual short-range Qassam rockets that land 13km into the Negev desert, but with locally made longer range rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As the Israeli offensive continued to pound Gaza resistance factions said they downed an Israeli warplane, a drone, and hit a warship. Hamas’s military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, gave a name to their operation, Hejaret Sejeel, a phrase from the Quran denoting rocks made from hell.

On Monday, the fifth day of Israel’s assault on Gaza, BBC Arabic radio quoted Israeli officials saying they had no other goal in attacking the Strip than to allow Israeli mothers to sleep soundly at night. Israel wasn’t seeking to eradicate Hamas.

According to Hamas sources, Israel requested mediation from the US for a ceasefire 24 hours after Operation Pillar of Defence began — ie when Palestinian rockets began to reach Tel Aviv.

The qualitative shift in retaliation to the Israeli attack is worthy of analysis. So is the apparent discomfort of Western parties with Israel’s impunity. That Tel Aviv had carte blanche to do what it liked had long been a given. But the variable that is receiving most attention, both here and abroad, is the way Egypt is positioning itself vis-à-vis the assault.

Hours after Al-Jabari’s assassination and the subsequent escalation of Israeli attacks Egypt’s social media was awash with expressions of outrage and demands for retaliatory steps. By midnight the president’s office announced that Mohamed Morsi had recalled Egypt’s ambassador to Israel.

As Israel’s deadly strikes on the besieged Strip continued and the death toll among civilians grew pressure mounted on Morsi to take a tougher stand. In the early hours of Friday morning Prime Minister Hisham Kandil left for Gaza at the head of a delegation that included presidential aides and ministers. We salute the heroes and martyrs of Palestine, Kandil told media representatives who were there to record a rare scene: the most senior Egyptian official to enter Gaza since 1967 (when Israel occupied it along with the West Bank and Jerusalem) was standing among them, close to tears.

Kandil said his visit was a symbol of the Egyptian people’s solidarity with the Palestinians “who deserve to be liberated”. Revolutionary Egypt, he continued, will stand behind the Palestinians till they regain their legitimate rights. The visit is not just a political gesture but also a show of support on the ground.

Hamas premier Ismail Haniyeh, shunned by the Mubarak regime and the military council that succeeded it, described the visit as “historic”. The message it sent to Israel, he said, was “that Gaza is not on its own”.

Haniyeh’s enthusiasm for a visit that lasted three hours and which was never going to stop the war is understandable only when viewed through the prism of Mubarak-era policies towards Palestine.

The last time Israel launched a war on Gaza was in December 2008. It lasted 22 days and resulted in the deaths of 1,500 Palestinians. To all intents and purposes Tzipi Levni, the then Israeli minister for foreign affairs, declared the war during a visit to Cairo and after meeting with Mubarak. When the war began on 27 December Mubarak refused to open the Rafah border crossing — Gaza’s only exit to the world not controlled by Israel — to Palestinians who needed to get out. It wasn’t before a week of Israeli shelling had passed that Mubarak’s General Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman initiated contacts with Palestinian resistance factions, says a senior Hamas source.

Mubarak discussed ceasefire initiatives with Western delegations in Sharm El-Sheikh. He talked with the Israelis, the Americans and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Cairo openly sided. Mubarak never had an official meeting with Hamas or Jihad leaders. That job was left to Suleiman and his intelligence officers.

Today’s presidency makes a point of distributing photos of Morsi’s meetings with Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal and Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdallah to the media. They met with Morsi to discuss the ceasefire and management of the situation. And according to Meshaal the Turks and Qataris were also involved. PA President Abbas and his senior officials remain conspicuously absent from the scene.

Although Cairo had made no official statements on the situation at the Rafah border crossing procedures appear to have been relaxed.

The PA signed an agreement with Israel in 2005 to manage and monitor the border crossing. Though Egypt was not party to the deal Cairo complied with the strict management of the Rafah crossing even after the agreement expired in 2006. In the same year Hamas won the elections in Gaza and, following a conflict with Abbas’s Fatah movement, seized control of the Strip in 2007. Israel responded by imposing a land, sea and air siege.

Egypt kowtowed to Israel’s conditions for operating the Rafah border crossing including, among other measures, denying transit for food, building materials and medical equipment. Egyptians entering Gaza had first to secure approval from the intelligence agencies, making it off limits to members of opposition groups.

After coming to power Morsi announced his intention to ease restrictions on the border, opening it for longer hours throughout the week and during holidays but the changes never materialised. Egyptian management of the crossing continued to defer to the Israeli blockade.

Only now does the situation appear to be changing, and it is due to Operation Pillar of Defence. Israel’s military assault on Gaza has placed Morsi in a position where not only does he have to take public opinion into account, he must also consider his Muslim Brotherhood base.

Morsi signalled a slight shift in Egypt’s Mubarak-era position when, before the latest Israeli offensive, he was quoted saying he stood an “equal distance” from both Hamas and Fatah. His spokesman, Yasser Ali, said Egypt had no intention of revising its peace treaty with Israel and the Brotherhood’s leadership was reportedly all for maintaining Mubarak’s policies vis-à-vis the Arab Israeli conflict.

Now the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party president, Saad Al-Katatni, is demanding Egypt amends the peace treaty. He openly declared his support for the “resistance” during a visit to Gaza on Monday. His statements followed Morsi’s warning to Israel that the price of any escalation “will be high”. Egypt today is not like the Egypt of yesterday, Morsi added, adopting a very different tone from Mubarak who was regularly described by Israeli officials as a “strategic asset”.

On Sunday evening a convoy of more than 500 activists from across the political spectrum crossed into Gaza using their ID cards rather than passports. They chanted against Israel, called for revenge and hailed the resistance.

“All the givens about Israel have been threatened,” says political analyst Hani Shukrallah. “Public opinion is now part of the equation, it can’t be ignored and Morsi is accountable to it.”

While no drastic measures have been taken by Egypt against Israel the symbolism of what has been done is enormous.

Now there is space to raise the benchmark of demands. The withdrawal of Egypt’s ambassador was followed by the easing of restrictions on the Rafah crossing to allow delegations to enter Gaza. It was only a matter of time before calls would be made for other actions — anything from cancelling the QIZ trade agreement with Israel to arming the resistance.

“The ramifications of the Arab awakening won’t end soon and it will take a long time and a lot of hardship to realise itself,” said Shukrallah. The region is undergoing changes similar to the post-World War II era “and the title of these changes is freedom”.

It is not overstating things, he added, to see the Egyptian convoy’s entrance to Gaza on Sunday as the beginning of the end of the siege.
Following Kandil’s visit to Gaza a Tunisian delegation led by Tunisia’s minister of foreign affairs visited the Strip, prompting Morocco’s king to order the building of a hospital in Gaza. On Tuesday a delegation of Arab foreign ministers, including Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Arabi and Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu, crossed to Gaza.

“The Arab world has changed and delegations are competing to visit Gaza in solidarity,” declared Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara. “Gaza is no longer alone,” wrote Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Sweif in the Guardian on Friday, the nations of the Arab Spring are demanding Palestinian rights as well.

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