Hamas's demands and Israel's insistence on severe punishment stymie Cairo's bid to end war

Egypt's efforts are further hindered by the unavailability of powerful Hamas and Palestinian commanders

Smoke rises from an air strike on Gaza City on Sunday as Israel responded to a deadly attack launched by Hamas militants a day earlier. AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

Follow the latest updates on the Israel-Gaza violence here.

Ambitious demands by Hamas and Israel's insistence on punishing the militant Palestinian group for killing hundreds of Israelis in a surprise attack are stymying Egypt's efforts to end the latest outbreak of fighting, Egyptian officials said on Sunday.

Egypt's efforts, which are directly overseen by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, are also being hindered by the “unavailability” of powerful field commanders from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to talk to given that their attention is entirely focused on the fighting, according to the officials.

The officials, who have direct knowledge of Egypt's contacts, spoke to The National.

They said Egypt's contacts over the past 24 hours included talks with senior EU and US officials as well as regional heavyweights like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. They said contacts were also under way with Iran, Hamas' main regional backer whose relations with Egypt have thawed in recent months after decades of tension.

Israel, for its part, has sought Cairo's help to secure the release of the unspecified number of Israelis taken hostage by Hamas during the militant group's raid into southern Israel on Friday. However, the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was adamant about severely punishing Hamas before it could enter negotiations for a truce, the officials said.

Egypt borders Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and has in the past mediated truces between Hamas and Israel, most recently in the summer of 2021. Egypt has since then been trying unsuccessfully to arrange a prisoner exchange between the two sides.

Israeli air strikes battered Gaza overnight, killing more than 300 Palestinians and smashing buildings, tunnels and the homes of Hamas officials, as Mr Netanyahu vowed “mighty vengeance for this wicked day”.

“We're going to be attacking Hamas severely and this is going to be a long, long haul,” a military spokesman told reporters.

In a sign of possible further escalation, Israeli artillery responded to mortar fire from Lebanon and drone strikes hit a post of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group along Israel's northern border.

Friday's attack by Hamas was Israel's bloodiest day since Egypt and Syria launched a sudden assault to reclaim lost territory 50 years ago.

The 1973 attack was Egypt's last full-fledged conflict against Israel, which it fought in 1948, 1956 and 1967. In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

“Hamas has significantly raised its expectations from any negotiations over a truce now that it has a large number of hostages,” said one of the Egyptian officials.

“Their initial demands included the release of all those captured since Friday and hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails. They also want a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and international guarantees that Israel will not launch a ground offensive in Gaza.”

Egypt, for its part, is asking Israel not to send troops into Gaza and to spare hospitals, basic services installations and civilians in the narrow coastal strip from its continuing air strikes, said the officials.

Separately, Cairo is in contact with Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group to urge its leaders not to join the fight, which would raise the danger of the Hamas-Israel conflict spiralling out of control, the officials said.

Egypt has long viewed stability in the Gaza Strip as part of its national security.

The Gaza Strip borders an area in the north of the Sinai Peninsula where Egyptian militants have been fighting government forces for years. Cairo has also been courting Hamas and the more radical PIJ, in large part because it did not want them to turn into a source of support for the Sinai-based militants.

Separately, Egypt has been trying to reconcile rival Palestinian factions in the hope that the long-stagnant peace negotiations with Israel could be revived if the Palestinians spoke with one voice.

Now that Israel and Gaza's militant groups are fighting again, Egypt has put its security forces in the Sinai region close to the strip on high alert.

It has also set up field hospitals near the border with Gaza to treat wounded civilians and instructed hospitals in the Sinai city of El Arish and Ismailia to the West to prepare for a possible influx of Palestinian casualties.

Updated: October 09, 2023, 3:48 AM