The intensification of Israel’s incursion into Gaza, with a ground offensive that began Thursday night, threw cold water on Egyptian-led efforts to mediate a cease-fire in the 11-day conflict that has left 275 Palestinians and two Israelis dead. But the failed truce also highlighted the further deterioration in Cairo’s relations with Hamas since the Egyptian military's takeover last summer — and exposed a position on the Palestinian group more closely aligned with Israel.
“I think Egypt still continues to have a role, and that role is difficult to displace,” said H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The question is how effective it will be, given its difficult relationship with Hamas.”
Israel said it decided it would go ahead with its Gaza ground invasion immediately after the cease-fire failed to take hold Tuesday. Egypt’s proposed truce failed after Israel pointed to Hamas’ continuance of rocket fire — although Hamas said that not only were the terms of the deal unacceptable but also that the group wasn’t even consulted on the deal.
“It was intended to squeeze Hamas … which can be seen in how gleefully [the deal] was accepted by Israel,” said Khaled Elgindy, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.
Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Wednesday reported that at the urging of Tony Blair, the Quartet's Middle East envoy, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi phoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday to discuss the possibility of a cease-fire. Anonymous Western and Israeli officials told Haaretz that the Egyptian initiative, which was proposed to begin on Tuesday, was hurriedly arranged and that Hamas was not consulted beforehand about the terms of the deal.
Hamas officials have said they want more than an agreement of “calm for calm,” desiring also an easing of the seven-year siege on Gaza, including the opening of crossings and the free flow of goods. And the group is well aware of the cold shoulder it now has in Cairo, a point brought home by reports suggesting it desires to see additional stakeholders, possibly Qatar or Turkey, included in any cease-fire efforts.
Egypt's seemingly belated intervention this week, and its distaste for Hamas, marks an approach that differs from what happened during the last serious fighting in Gaza between Hamas and Israel, in 2012, when then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi brokered a cease-fire after eight days of fighting that largely held until last week, with the launch of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.
But that Egyptian government, supported as it was by the Muslim Brotherhood, was much less antagonistic to Hamas than the current Sisi administration.
Since the July 2013 Egyptian military coup that unseated Morsi, the Cairo government has launched a massive crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, with hundreds of its members imprisoned or forced underground.
What's more, the Rafah crossing with Egypt, the only Gaza border crossing not controlled by Israel, has largely been shut since Morsi’s fall. The only partial exception has been in recent days for emergency medical needs of Gazans.
Since Morsi's overthrow, much of the Sisi government has since treated Hamas, which was founded as an offshoot of the Brotherhood, with similar distaste. The view from Cairo, said Elgindy, has since been “characterized by much of the Egyptian intelligentsia and media, as well as senior authorities,” treating Hamas “as being a criminal organization linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Sisi is an extremely cynical player,” he said, “playing this [mediation effort] exactly how he plays politics in Egypt.”
Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he was not surprised that Egypt’s proposal this week was more reflective of the country's recent history.
“I don’t think its interests are in being a mediator,” he said. “I think Egypt’s interests align with Israel. They’ve been aligned on this for quite some time.
“For the last year, Egyptians have been told that the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas … have been seeking to undermine” Egyptian society, Cook said. So while Egyptians remain broadly in support of the Palestinian cause, he said he did not “see Egyptian society mobilized at the moment for Hamas.”
While the contrast between Morsi’s approach to Hamas and the current government's method is clear, experts say Egypt's latest moves also mark a significant change in the country's view of Hamas dating back to the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted by popular protests in 2011.
“Mubarak didn’t love Hamas, but he dealt with it as a Palestinian faction more than as an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Elgindy. Egypt’s current government, he said, holds the opposite view.
Meanwhile, Egypt reiterated its support for the cease-fire initiative on Thursday, with its Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri telling The Associated Press, “The only way to protect the people and to avoid additional bloodshed is acceptance of the plan.” But for now, Egypt’s message appears to blame the continuing violence on Hamas.
"Had Hamas accepted the Egyptian initiative, at least 40 Palestinian souls would have been saved," Shukri said on Thursday according to MENA, a state-run Egyptian news agency, referring to Gazans who had been killed since the failure of the cease-fire effort.
Now, already troubled diplomatic efforts appear to be on hold in the midst of Israel’s ground invasion. But many think the increased violence will eventually see Egypt make a renewed effort to step in.
Elgindy said that while he thought Egypt and Israel were aligned up to a point in the short term, the ongoing violence could drive the Sisi administration to more forcefully intervene, given the adverse effects it would likely have even on Egyptian public opinion.
The Egyptian public’s support of the government position on Hamas “could change if the death toll goes up much more in Gaza than it has already — but we’ll have to wait and see,” said Hellyer.
“Even they [Egypt] understand that they are not going to liquidate Hamas," Elgindy said. "They, like Israel, are content to allow Hamas to rule Gaza as long as it’s just focused on governing.”