Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, left, meets with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Sunday, November 18, 2012. About 500 Egyptian activists have crossed into Gaza to deliver medical supplies and show support for Palestinians facing an Israeli offensive (AP Photo/Egyptian Presidency).
Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi is walking a political tightrope amidst Israel’s assault on Gaza, balancing the need to appease domestic anger whilst keeping foreign relations with Washington and Tel Aviv on an even keel. Just this morning, Morsi expressed optimism that a cease-fire was in the works, as Cairo hosted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In recent weeks, Egypt had been trying to negotiate a truce between Hamas and Israel amid an upsurge in violence between the two sides sparked by Israel’s killing of a 12-year-old boy in Gaza earlier this month. After Palestinian militant groups agreed to an informal cease-fire last Monday, Israel shattered two days of quiet by assassinating Ahmed Jabari—the head of Hama’s military wing—and launched its most intensive bombing campaign on the territory in four years. Hamas responded by launching hundreds of rockets into southern Israel.
Morsi—who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood—quickly withdrew Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League and ordered Egypt’s representative at the United Nations to call for a meeting at the Security Council.
The withdrawal of Egypt’s ambassador is not unprecedented; former President Hosni Mubarak did the same in 2000 in protest of Israel’s vicious response to the second Palestinian intifada.
What did mark a departure from Mubarak-era policies was Morsi’s decision to send in his prime minister, Hisham Qandil, for a three-hour visit to Gaza on Friday. Standing beside Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in a press conference at Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Qandil proclaimed, “This tragedy cannot pass in silence and the world should take responsibility in stopping this aggression.”
The move was widely hailed in Egypt as a bold gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians and went a long way towards appeasing domestic outrage at the Israeli assault. It also marked a turnaround in sentiment for the Egyptian president from a month earlier when it emerged that the new Egyptian ambassador to Israel had carried an endorsement letter signed in Morsi’s name that referred to Israeli President Shimon Peres as a “great friend.” Morsi faced a chorus of angry critics and demands for an explanation for the discrepancy between the Brotherhood’s public stance against Israel and the diplomatic note.
The day after Israel’s assault, Egypt also announced the Rafah border crossing—Gaza’s only border to the outside world not controlled by Israel—would be open to evacuate wounded Palestinians seeking medical attention.
In 2007, following Hamas’s democratic victory parliamentary elections and their subsequent takeover of Gaza, Israel placed the territory under a crippling siege that was duly enforced by the Mubarak government. The policy was a source of anger for many Egyptians who viewed their government and military acting as a subcontractor for the ongoing Israeli occupation, most notably during Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza in 2008/2009 that left over 1,300 Palestinians dead when Egypt maintained the closure, refusing to allow Palestinians out or humanitarian aid in.
While Egypt has since eased restrictions on the border, Morsi has not lifted the blockade since taking office in July and has done little to bring about a significant change in policy with Israel. Most trade with Gaza is still conducted through tunnels under the border where an illicit economy has flourished. Meanwhile, Egypt maintains its Qualifying Industrial Zones agreement with Israel, a pact that allows Egyptian companies preferential access to US markets for products that include 10.5 percent of components produced in Israel.