Egypt is continuing efforts to save its cease-fire proposal between Israel and Gaza and end hostilities that have claimed more than 600 Palestinian lives since July 8, despite its failure to secure a deal when the truce initiative was first put on the table last week.
Put forward on July 14 by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the proposal called on both Israel and Palestinian factions to halt all attacks — Israel in the form of sea, land and air attacks, and Hamas in the form of border attacks and rockets targeting Israeli citizens, specifically those launched through tunnels in the north of the Gaza Strip.
The initiative also included a call for all border crossings to open for the movement of people and goods, conditional upon the restoration of security on the ground. No special mention was made regarding Egypt’s commitment to easing access along the Rafah border crossing, which it manages. Egypt has drawn international condemnation for it reluctance to open the crossing despite the mounting humanitarian crisis on the other side of the border.
Despite Hamas’ rejection of the proposal, Egypt’s official line is to defend it and not amend it. While the proposal received tacit international support, both Hamas and outside observers charge the Egyptian mediators with bias against Hamas due to the current administration’s rivalry with the Muslim Brotherhood, of which the Gaza leadership is an offshoot.
While Egypt insists that the main points of this cease-fire deal are no different from its mediation to stop the 2012 Israeli attack in Gaza, then brokered by the Muslim Brotherhood regime, Hamas and other Palestinian factions have cited some concerns.
Upon hearing about the initiative, the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military branch, described it as a proposal of “bowing and submission.”
In a direct response to the proposal, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, another strong force in Gaza, presented a paper to the General Intelligence Services last week indicating their main demands for a cease-fire.
Ziad al-Nakhala, the vice-secretary general of the Islamic Jihad, was in Cairo to present the document to the Egyptian authorities last week. Speaking from Lebanon, Nakhala explains that the document chiefly demanded that the blockade be lifted not only by opening the crossings with Egypt, but also with Israel.
Nakhala says another demand was the release of Palestinian prisoners who were previously freed as part of the Gilad Shalit swap, but who were re-arrested in the West Bank by Israel in the last weeks.
Finally, the Islamist factions demanded an ease of trade restrictions by sea.
“The intelligence response was that everything was conditional on the immediate cease-fire,” Nakhala says.
Israel held a similar position to that of Egypt. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said that Hamas’ demands were “unacceptable.”
Still, Mohamed Megahed al-Zayat, an army general who heads the National Center for Middle East Studies, which is close to Egypt’s General Intelligence Services, contends that the cease-fire proposal is similar to the 2012 truce brokered by ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
“The Egyptian initiative clearly stipulates putting a halt on all military operations from both sides, by sea, air and ground from the Israeli side, and through the tunnels from the Hamas side. This (the tunnels demand) is the only new condition that didn’t exist back in 2012, because it is a main Israeli demand today,” Zayat says.
Asked about what guarantees Egypt is offering to ease the blockade on the strip, Zayat explains that “the initiative clearly says that the blockade would be lifted once security is restored on the ground. In other words, once a cease-fire is implemented and respected by both sides, we can discuss terms of the blockade’s lifting.”
The Egypt-brokered truce in 2012, when 167 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, included a pledge to open border crossings. It was preceded by a visit to Gaza by Egypt’s then-Prime Minister Hesham Qandil only 48 hours after the attacks started.
Ousted President Mohamed Morsi, who stood behind the 2012 mediation, is now behind bars on several charges, including an espionage case that involves Hamas. The Muslim Brotherhood is the subject of an ongoing crackdown by the Sisi regime.
Another source of contention has been the way the proposal was articulated by the Egyptian authorities in conjunction with Israel, and the way it was communicated to Hamas.
Hamas authorities in Gaza said no one contacted them officially with regards to the cease-fire initiative. However, Moussa Abu Marzouk, the Hamas spokesperson in Cairo and the vice president of the group’s political bureau, adopted a more conciliatory tone. He said on his Twitter account last week that the group was still deliberating over the proposal.
Meanwhile, on July 16 the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article claiming that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Sisi on Saturday, July 12, in response to Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair’s exhortations to broker a truce. Following the call, the proposal was drafted and Israel accepted it immediately. Hamas, however, declined the terms of the truce.
According to the Haaretz report, which cited senior Israeli officials, the Egyptian proposal didn’t survive because it was hastily prepared and poorly communicated to Hamas.
Badr Abdel Aty, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, maintains the initiative was communicated to all Palestinian factions, “with an ‘s’, which means all the factions.” Asked by Mada Masr to enumerate them, he says, “Israel, [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen and Palestinian factions.”
“We prepared this initiative here in Egypt and we announced it, and as you see it has the full support by the Arab countries and international community. We are still exerting efforts to be in a position for it to be implemented on the ground, especially to save the blood of Palestinian people and stop ongoing killings by the Israeli military,” he says.
Abdel Aty dismisses reports that Blair pushed Egypt to hastily broker a truce, saying, “It was a pure Egyptian initiative. Blair came afterwards as a representative of the Quartet to be engaged in contacts. It’s a homemade, pure Egyptian initiative drafted based upon the different phone calls and contacts.”
Similarly, Zayat of the General Intelligence-tied center, denies allegations that Egypt didn’t inform Hamas leaders of the proposal in due course.
“The Egyptian authorities communicated the initiative to the Hamas representative in Cairo, Moussa Abu Marzouk. The initiative was communicated to him before it was published in the media,” claims Zayat.
A change in the Egyptian administration’s handling of the Gaza issue was noted by several Palestinian interlocuters.
Abdel Qadir Yassin, a Palestinian historian and close interlocutor to Palestinian factions in Gaza, suspects that Egypt’s intelligence services didn’t have much to do with the drafting of the cease-fire proposal, since it lacks “substance and balancing.” His guess is that it is mostly the work of Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“The General Intelligence Services used to broker more balancing agreements, either on the inter-Palestinian level or the Palestinian-Israeli front,” he says.
“I remember a much more collaborative Egyptian intelligence from the time of [former Spy Chief] Omar Suleiman, which were even better than the times of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Nakhala says, warding off claims of a bias from Palestinian Islamist factions to the ousted Brotherhood regime in Egypt.
But Zayat blames Hamas for wanting to weaken Egypt’s role in the region as part of its alignment with the ousted Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas is said to be banking on Qatari and Turkish mediation in the conflict, countries with which it has better relations. Abbas met with Hamas’ leader Khaled Meshaal in the Qatari capital of Doha, and his envoy Azzam al-Ahmed was reportedly in Cairo on Tuesday to relay the outcomes of the talks to Egyptian officials.
Yet, Marzouk appears to have a more diplomatic tone than his Gaza-based Hamas fellows by virtue of interfacing with the Egyptian authorities, and most notably, the General Intelligence. In his interview with Asharq al-Awsat, he said that Hamas trusts Egyptian efforts to resolve the crisis and is not trying to embarrass Egypt or be part of a coalition against it.
“I don’t think that even one leader in Hamas and the whole movement can distance himself from Egypt,” he said.
For all the talks, however, there appears little hope on an official level that an Egypt-brokered cease-fire is close. A series of diplomatic exchanges seeking to end the bloodshed have taken place in Cairo this week. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry spoke with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday, and Kerry — who arrived in Cairo on Monday night — also met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a Cairo hotel. Both Kerry and Ban were due to meet with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for cease-fire talks.
Still, Israel’s Livni said “a cease-fire is not near.”
Zayat asserts that Hamas will have to acquiesce in the face of Israel’s military assault. “The military reality is what rules now, and Hamas will have no option but to accept Egypt’s mediation. Until then, more lives will be lost just because Hamas doesn’t want to take Egypt’s proposal,” he contends.
The Palestinian Authority’s former Ambassador to Cairo, Barakat al-Farra, concurs that Hamas should first accept the Egyptian cease-fire proposal, and then discussions on the details could take place.
But Yassin doesn’t think that Hamas is in dire need of incontestably resorting to Egypt’s cease-fire proposal, given the military developments on the ground. The death of 27 Israeli soldiers and two civilians so far in the conflict speaks to a new high in Hamas’ records against Israel. In 2012, six Israelis were killed in the operation, while in the deadlier 2009 Cast Lead operation, a total of 13 Israelis died, though four of those soldiers’ lives were claimed by friendly fire. According to Israel, 1,166 Palestinian lives were claimed in the 2009 operation.
“The legendary resistance in Gaza is what will rule a modification on the terms of the [Egyptian] initiative,” Yassin says, “if the initiative is to be considered.”