The West Bank is reeling in tension as Israel launched a series of air attacks on Gaza. The strikes, which Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid calls a “necessary preemptive operation” against Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) for allegedly planning an attack on Israel.
With the risks of tensions escalating in the region if the Hamas group — the region’s largest militant organization – joins hands with PIJ, all eyes are on Egypt, a long-time mediator between Israel and Palestine.
The Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a statement saying Cairo is mediating between Israel and the Palestinians to prevent escalations.
The primary test for Sisi has been to keep the Hamas group out of the ongoing conflict while bringing the Lapid Government – slated for an election in November and desperately trying to look hawkish to its internal audience – to the negotiating table to deescalate the situation.
Cairo appears to have leverage here, given its past mediating roles during attacks on the territory. On May 21, 2021, Egypt played a prominent role in mediating a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel after the 11-day offensive on Gaza by Tel Aviv. It has also been a key stakeholder during previous attacks in 2008, 2012, and 2014, most notably the prisoners’ swap between Israel and Hamas in 2011.
The Sisi-led Egyptian Government has also been an active player in the reconstruction of Gaza following the 2021 offensive. It has pledged $500m to rebuild housing units.
Political experts from the Hamas side are reportedly appreciative of the Egyptian efforts, especially Cairo’s role in conveying messages from Palestinian factions to all parties. Hamas is said to have used Egypt-led channel of communication to convey to Israel that the Al-Aqsa Mosque raid by Israel in April this year that injured numerous Palestinian civilians, “is a red line,” and that “the resistance has the right to defend its people.”
On the Israeli side, Cairo has been partnering with Tel Aviv in maintaining the blockade on the Gaza Strip at the Rafah border. In the process, it has helped dismantle smuggling tunnels that brought in weapons.
Egypt’s power in the region comes from its absolute control of the Rafah border – the only entry and exit point for the people of Gaza which is not controlled by the Israelis. This geostrategic leverage is perhaps one of the reasons that prompted the Hamas group – previously in a fraught relationship with Egypt – to reconcile its ties with Cairo.
The Gaza conflict mediation aids Egypt as well to further its national interests, retain its regional standing both politically and economically, and, most importantly, improve the relationship between Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and the Biden Administration.
Firstly, Middle-Eastern politics has witnessed a major geostrategic shift over the past years – from the end of the political rift between Gulf states, the improvement of relations between Cairo and Doha, to an Egyptian and Turkish rapprochement and the normalization agreements between the Israelis and the Arab world. Cairo is wary of the potential diminishing role of the Suez Canal as the Arab world warms up its economic, trade, and geostrategic cooperation with Israel.
Secondly, Egypt is trying to tap into its role in the Israel-Palestinian reconciliation to garner international support for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute with Ethiopia.
Finally, this is an opportunity for Egypt to appease the Biden Administration, which in the past has been critical of the Sisi regime over its human rights violations. However, the 2021 ceasefire deal marked a major shift with President Joe Biden making the first contact with Sisi, before the signing of the deal, and a follow-up contact when Washington expressed gratitude for a successful Egyptian counterpart. It is said that during the two calls, the countries discussed a wide range of issues around GERD; support for Iraq’s efforts to restore its sovereignty among others.
Quite evidently, in the Egyptian-US relationship geopolitics has gained precedence over issues such as Sisi’s alleged undermining of democracy and human rights. The challenge, therefore, for Cairo will be to continue to play an effective peace broker between the Israeli and Palestinian factions, while retaining Egypt’s strategic importance to Washington.