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Al-Sisi Must Fix Egypt's Policy On Palestine

Palestinians rally along the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza (2011)
Palestinians rally along the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza (2011)
Sharif S. Elmusa


CAIRO — The events unfolding in Egypt since July 1, 2013, when General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, has been by all accounts detrimental to the interests of the Palestinians in Gaza and to Hamas, an offspring of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, which has governed the tiny territory since 2007.

Egyptian security forces largely sealed off the border with Gaza, exacerbating the Israeli siege, and the media demonized Hamas, depicting it as a mortal threat to national security and individual well-being.

Still, what is happening right now in Gaza is crucial for both Hamas and the administration of President Sisi: for Hamas because of the destruction and human losses taking place in the impoverished and encircled strip of land, and for Sisi because it is an early test for him after having projected himself as a pan-Arab leader and his being compared by many of his allies, even before becoming president, to the iconic Gamal Abdel Nasser.

(Fighting continued Wednesday after Hamas had rejected an initial Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire that the Israeli government had accepted.)

The last year has witnessed a barrage of Egyptian media attacks against Hamas. The organization was subjected to grand and petty charges, from aiding Morsi’s escape from jail during the days of the revolution in 2011, to conspiring with Qatar and Morsi after he became president to give part of the Sinai Desert to Palestinian refugees in Gaza and resettle them there. Hamas was eventually portrayed as a terrorist organization together with the Muslim Brotherhood.

As some thoughtful Egyptian commentators have noted, no material evidence has been offered to substantiate such allegations. And they were all made in the context of a general xenophobia, including against the Syrians who had fled to Egypt for safety, and of conjuring imaginary plots by foreigners to undermine Egypt. It would have been more edifying and better for those who sought to discredit Hamas to focus on their disagreements with its ideology and politics, rather than trafficking in fantastic conspiracies.

On the ground, Egyptian security forces closed off the Rafah border crossing, further tightening Israel’s protracted land and sea encirclement of the strip. Rafah is the only exit out of Gaza, apart from others in the north under Israeli control, which are used, only intermittently, for goods. To complete the task, the government began to systematically destroy the tunnels that had been dug between Gaza and Sinai during the Mubarak reign to compensate for the closure of Rafah’s gateway, and which had become the main lifeline for the blockaded population.

Keeping the Palestinians caged in Gaza is particularly poignant when the Sinai border is wide open for Israeli tourists.

No one denies that Egypt has a security problem in Sinai, but Egyptians who know the Peninsula blame it on the chronic discriminatory policies of successive Egyptian governments against the people in the area, especially the Bedouins, who are not considered equal citizens. The limits on the presence of the Egyptian army in the region stipulated in the Camp David peace accord between Egypt and Israel in 1979 only worsened the problem.

Soon after his inauguration, President Sisi declared his commitment to the security of other Arab nations, and to the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. A country like Egypt that regards itself as the center of gravity of the Arab world cannot afford to have its regional discourse and policy swing like a pendulum. What is required today is the formulation of an integrated, long-term policy toward Palestine that takes into consideration the idiosyncrasies of the situation in Gaza.

All the trimmings

Israel has done everything to prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. It grabbed as much land in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, as it could, rendering it a collection of cantons cut off from each other through a comprehensive system of roads, walls, checkpoints, modern multi-lane highways for Jews only, and the rest of the well-known colonization paraphernalia.

For Gaza, Israel wishes nothing less than its disappearance, as the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin once uttered publicly. Practically, Gaza vanishing means its absorption by the populous Egypt. In brief, Israeli goals for the West Bank and Gaza run counter to the declared stance of President Sisi.

One of the side-effects of Israel’s wars against Gaza has been to diminish Egypt’s position to that of a “mediator,” which happened in 2009 under Mubarak and in 2012 under Morsi, despite the strong, longstanding Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric against Israel, and which is being repeated today as well.

It is sorely inadequate to say, as President Sisi has done, the “two sides” are showing “stubbornness and intransigence,” referring to the refusal of Israel and Hamas to end the fighting unilaterally. This language is not only not neutral, it ignores the fact that the confrontation is a highly lopsided one, seen in the Israeli/Palestinian death toll that has risen to 1-194 at the time of this publishing, and keeps climbing, and that the noise of rockets and their shards are no match to the infernal missiles raining on Gaza.

The apparent neutrality has been construed as reflecting the political marginalization of Egypt, or even as a desire on the part of the government to further weaken Hamas. Whatever its meaning may be, and though it may win Cairo kudos in Washington, this position could be costly to the Sisi administration’s credibility in the Arab world, including among those who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood. And ultimately, what persuades Israel is not Arab mediation, but a calculation of loss and gain and the wishes of its American backers.

Now is a fitting moment for Egyptian officials to rethink the approach to Palestine as a whole and in particular to Gaza, which abuts their country’s borders. In the short term, a compelling statement of solidarity, like the one that has been just issued by several political parties, is in order. It matters greatly for morale when you are alone in the maelstrom like the Gazans today. An important step is to re-open the Rafah gateway to let in humanitarian aid, and to let out those in need of medical care. The Egyptian government has done so on a limited basis and not without much delay, and the move does not substitute for a full, lasting opening of the crossing. In return, Hamas would have to do whatever is necessary to reassure Egypt that the port will be used only for civilian purposes.

Shift the burden

In the long run, Egypt will have to fashion an alternative strategy that shifts the burden of Gaza’s siege, by catalyzing pressure on Israel to open Gaza to the world. Gaza had built an airport and a small seaport as had been provisioned in the 1993 Oslo accords. Israel demolished the two during the campaign to break up the Palestinian uprising in 2000. Further, the Oslo pact allows for a safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank; Israel has never let it see the light of day for it does not want the two Palestinian regions to be integrated.

Linking Gaza to the world would enable it to tackle rampant unemployment, poverty and suffocating isolation. The linkage would also thwart Israel’s attempt to make it part of Egypt, and it comports with Egypt’s policy against the absorption of the strip.

Israel rejects such openings for Gaza on the grounds that they would allow Hamas and other Palestinian organizations easy access to weapons, which brings us to the second element of a wider strategy, namely alternative forms of resistance that Egypt could encourage. Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, is adamant about the notion of resistance, preferring negotiations and diplomacy, which, for over 20 years, have amounted only to futile circling in the tunnel misnamed a “peace process.”

While it is not easy to conceive a resistance strategy that does not drain Palestinian resources, there is no hope without resistance. Resistance, however, does not have to be military. The Palestinians alone cannot defeat Israel by the force of arms; they can only annoy it, which is what they aimed at in their phase of “armed struggle.”

Hamas cannot possibly entertain the idea that rockets alone can win a war, or that Gazans won’t keep getting pummeled by the Israeli war machine. To be effective, armed struggle necessitates “strategic depth” in Arab countries, and none have been willing to provide it. At any rate, the chief forms of Palestinian resistance have always been peaceful – the armed aspect gets hyped up by Israel because it gives it the opportunity to present itself as a victim defending itself, confident that it can rely on friends in Washington, London, or Paris and in the mainstream media in these capitals to echo its spurious claim.

The menu of resistance

Peaceful resistance is waged at the local and international levels. The menu of resistance in Palestine is rich in its many forms and has seen a number of innovations. What is needed is coordination, and diffusion of the practices to all areas of Palestine. The international civil society campaign — Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, abbreviated as BDS – has made inroads among important sectors of the politically active population in some Western countries and facilitated discussion of the Palestinian issue in the United States as a struggle for liberation from the Israeli system of apartheid and disenfranchisement. Now it needs to be expanded and deepened and eventually taken to the United Nations General Assembly, where Israel cannot be shielded by the United States veto. Such ends can be realized only through Arab engagement and forceful Egyptian leadership.

The foregoing strategy spares Egypt future political tests, is unlikely to adversely affect its relations with Washington, restores some of lost Egyptian influence in the region, and could enable the Palestinians to realize some of their aspirations.

But of course, the burden falls first and foremost on Palestinian leaders.

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