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Egypt’s cease-fire initiative and sacrifice for Palestine

Whether out of bureaucratic inertia, miscalculation or intention, the Egyptian government made a cease-fire proposal in the early days of the ongoing Israeli invasion of Gaza. It essentially asked the “two sides” to cease hostilities, and had a provision for opening Sinai’s Rafah border crossing to Gaza if Egypt’s security situation improved.

Israel said it would abide by the cease-fire. Hamas and other resistance organizations in Gaza had many reservations about the proposal, because it did not include lifting the protracted sea and air siege of the strip, or give any guarantees that Israel would keep its word in the future.

It subsequently transpired that the initiative had been discussed with Israel, whereas Hamas and the other organizations had been kept in the dark. The proposal was then relayed to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, who flew to Cairo and asked Hamas to accept Egypt’s offer.

Egypt, Israel and the United States all held Hamas responsible for the continuation of the fighting. Blaming the victim is a tried and true method brandished by the powerful to keep down the poor and the weak.

Israel seized the opportunity to press on with its rampage, and earned public relations points from Western politicians and the mainstream media by appearing willing to stop the war. If it were sincere, of course Israel could have put an end to its operations without anybody’s urging — not to mention, it could have refrained from launching the attack on Gaza in the first place.

But in war and in politics there are often surprises and unintended consequences, and power is not always able to steer events as it pleases.

Abbas quickly found himself in a precarious position. The Palestinians in the West Bank were already fed up with chewing the bad gum of the “peace process,” which had failed to stop Israel from dispossessing them, to create a state, to provide freedom of movement in a West Bank that is also essentially under siege, or release prisoners from Israeli jails — all the good things that the Palestinian Authority was meant to accomplish for them. They saw it for what it is: at best, an Authority without authority; at worst, aiding Israel’s suppression of the Palestinians.  

And just prior to the attack on Gaza, the West Bank had also suffered the violence of Israel’s “moral” army: a swift round of civilian shootings, vandalism of houses and even of a university campus, and incarcerations, including of former prisoners Israel had freed in an earlier agreement with Hamas.  With Gaza’s seeming steadfastness in the face of US-supplied weapons of mass destruction, Abbas and his entourage in Ramallah were in danger of losing their uncertain grip. So Abbas took a 180-degree turn and delivered a well-crafted speech, adopting the demands of the resistance organizations.    

Knowing full well that Hamas — by sheer virtue of geography — would need Egyptian cooperation, Egypt continues to insist that its initiative is the only game in town, and Palestinians can take it or leave it. It also claims that the cease-fire proposal is similar to the initiative proposed under ousted President Mohamed Morsi during the previous Israeli invasion in 2012. 

This claim is not entirely accurate, and also ignores the context of the 2012 initiative. Morsi dispatched his prime minister to Gaza to express solidarity immediately after Israel launched its attack, made strong statements indicting Israel’s actions and invited Hamas’ leaders to Cairo for consultation.

Israel went along with it at the time because it was eager to have Egypt maintain the same mediator role it had honed during deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s administration, making it seem normal or even natural for an Arab state to be a mediator, rather than to take the side of the Palestinians. This was especially significant for Israel, for it would cast a shadow over the discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood, from whose ranks Morsi rose to power and which had been unequivocal in its hostility toward Israel and its backing of the Palestinians.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has done nothing of the sort, however. The first few words he uttered publicly described Hamas and Israel’s positions in the same terms, as both being stubborn and intransigent.  The next time he spoke on the subject, he defended his position and the cease-fire initiative by invoking Egypt’s sacrifice of 100,000 soldiers and noncombatants on behalf of Palestine. 

The invocation of past Egyptian sacrifices is a tool that has been cynically wielded since the days of late President Anwar al-Sadat by Egyptian politicians, media and segments of the population who, for whatever reason, hold a grudge against the Palestinians and Arabs in general. The sacrifices are invoked to silence any criticism of Egyptian policy, as though the Palestinians are ingrates and they, and the Egyptians who support them, belittle those sacrifices, or have been agitating for the Egyptian army to fight Israel. But has a Palestinian leader ever been consulted before any of the Arab-Israeli wars? 

The Palestinians, like all the oppressed, appeal for help from people of conscience everywhere, and it is no secret that they expect more from the Arabs to whom they are bound by geography, history, language and religion. It is a tragic fact that the price paid by Egyptians, Palestinians and other Arabs in the conflict has not halted the advance of the Zionist project in Palestine, which is why we are where we are today.

Summoning these losses is also a distancing device that shifts the responsibility of Egypt’s failure to become an economic power onto the commitments it made to Palestine and other Arab causes. Surely, military expenditures heavily burdened Egyptian budgets early on; back then, the Arab Gulf states sent tangible contributions after the 1967 war.  Egypt also enjoyed peace and stability for 30 years under Sadat and Mubarak, and the country — especially its military — was the recipient of massive funding from the United States. During that time, this aid could have transformed Egypt’s economy into a viable, industrial one. Palestine had little to do with the lack of that achievement.

Egypt’s official actions since the Israeli invasion have only matched its words. The Egyptian Armed Forces did not allow a team of international doctors to enter Gaza. It turned back a convoy of its own citizens on its way to Gaza to express solidarity and deliver medical supplies; only after widespread criticism was the convoy — though without the activists — cleared to enter Gaza.  

Nor could Egyptians hold sympathetic rallies as they have previously, and as others have done in numerous places around the world, thanks to the general atmosphere of intimidation and the harsh Protest Law that has been employed to imprison many activists.

To use the deaths of those who fell on the battlefield defending both Egypt and Palestine to justify a wrong-headed foreign policy, and to berate those who are fighting valiantly with modest means in Gaza, or those who face Israeli soldiers with bare hands in the rest of Palestine, diminishes the memory of those victims. The dead, it would seem, are better honored by fidelity to the purpose for which they gave their lives. That has been the implicit or explicit message of statements by an increasing number of Egyptians — activists, writers, professionals, politicians and people from all walks of life.

In the meantime, more than 1,200 Gazans have been killed in the past 23 days of Israeli air strikes — at least 80 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations, and including more than 243 children. The number of wounded has surpassed 7,100 and the monstrous pedometer of pain and bereavement is continually climbing. The destruction of houses and apartment buildings and other infrastructure that became apparent during a brief lull in the fighting resembled the aftermath of a hurricane. This is what technocratic jargon calls “collateral damage” to eschew any moral responsibility, when in fact the losses among the fighters and damage to the tunnels between Gaza and Israel — the alleged targets of the Israeli military — have been much less substantial.   

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s insistence on the original cease-fire initiative without incorporating the demands of the Palestinians, Sisi’s negative statements and the rest of the government’s actions all suggest that the proposed cease-fire was prompted neither by bureaucratic inertia nor by miscalculation. It was, instead, a calculated step to place Hamas in a corner, irrespective of the extent of the carnage in Gaza.

Sisi, the man behind the policy, is the head of the country that, in his own words, “will remain the mother of the world,” with a Constitution that affirms in Article 1 that “Egypt is part of the Arab nation and promotes its integration and unity.”

Looking at the bloody Israeli campaign through the keyhole of settling accounts with Hamas is not a mark of statesmanship. Statesmanship dictates that a president leaves behind the military intelligence officer. As Shakespeare said in “Twelfth Night”: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Your fate awaits you.”

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Sharif S Elmusa