Egypt’s Gaza-Israel ceasefire plan seeks halt in attacks and Jerusalem concessions

Israel has been knocking back any concession that could be seen as a win for Hamas

Egypt's security agencies are in talks to halt the rocket fire from Gaza and Israel’s bombardment of the enclave and defuse tensions in Jerusalem.

Egyptian security sources told The National that the mediation, which began soon after the violence in Gaza started more than a week ago, has made little headway because Israel has ruled out concessions.

The details of the mediation have not been made public, but the sources agreed to present the main elements of the discussions.

This was after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi spoke publicly for the first time about Cairo’s efforts to halt the violence.

“The current situation now is that we are very urgently and very clearly seeking a return to quiet, and to end the violence and killings taking place,” Mr El Sisi told reporters on Sunday night in Paris where he was attending international conferences.

Asked whether there was hope for the Egyptian mediation to succeed, he replied: “We are and will continue [our efforts]. There is always hope and it’s hoped that we can all move to end this conflict.”

On Monday night, the US for the first time stated its desire for a ceasefire to be introduced and expressed support for Cairo’s efforts to bring about one.

“The president expressed his support for a ceasefire and discussed US engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end,” the White House said in a transcript of a phone call between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Egypt was probably the most reliable mediator, the official said. “They seem most connected.”

Key negotiating points

The security sources said Cairo wants Israel to take steps to defuse tensions in Jerusalem following near-nightly clashes between protesters and police throughout Ramadan, the storming of Al Aqsa Mosque by police and the possible eviction of Palestinian families from the district of Sheikh Jarrah to make way for Jewish settlers.

Egyptian mediators are also proposing that Jordan is allowed to assume a more effective custody of the Al Aqsa Mosque and other holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem.

Jordan is the formal custodian of Al Aqsa but its influence has gradually waned as Israel became increasingly more assertive in Jerusalem, which is also home to holy Christian and Jewish sites.

Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed it, despite Palestinians demanding East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. The two sides have not sat at the negotiating table for years.

The Egytion sources said Israel is reluctant to make any concessions on Jerusalem, fearing a violent backlash from religious or extremist right-wing parties in Israel.

It also did not want to allow Hamas to boast of a victory or to be seen to be rewarded for firing rockets into Israeli cities.

“Israel is in a bind this time around,” one of the sources said, alluding to the fact that Hamas has targeted both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the current bout of fighting – targets further from Gaza and less often hit.

The fighting has led foreign airlines to cancel flights to Israel and hit the country’s economy.

It is the deadliest violence between Israel and Hamas since 2014 – the last time the two sides fought a major war.

At least 212 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, including 61 children and 36 women.

About 1,400 have been wounded.

About ten people have died in Israel, including eight from rocket attacks. The toll includes two children and a soldier.

The sources said Egyptian mediators – drawn from the country’s security agencies – wanted Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel and for the latter to call off its bombardment of Gaza.

Egypt, which shares borders with both Gaza and Israel, has for years mediated between the two sides at times of tension or open hostilities.

It has also mediated in the past between Fatah, the dominant faction in the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, which drove the former out of Gaza in a brief civil war in 2007.

But Israel, according to the sources, remains determined to maintain the bombardment to disable as much of Hamas’ military apparatus as possible before it agrees to any ceasefire.

Egypt’s relations with both sides

Egypt’s own relations with Hamas have frequently been stormy, with both showing deep distrust of the other.

The militant group is effectively the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic group declared a terrorist organisation by Egypt.

In 2013, Egypt’s military, led by Mr El Sisi at the time, removed from office a president who belonged to the group amid mass protests against his divisive, one-year rule.

Since then, Egypt has destroyed an elaborate, Hamas-supervised network of tunnels under its border with Gaza that had been used for years to smuggle a wide range of goods into the impoverished enclave on the Mediterranean.

In the past, Egypt has also accused Hamas of aiding militants fighting security forces in the northern part of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.

On the other hand, Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

Relations between the former foes have since been dubbed a “cold peace,” although security co-operation between them have consistently been close, primarily to contain Islamist militancy in northern Sinai and to stop human trafficking into Israel.

Egyptians express support for Palestinians

The mediation comes as Egyptians sympathise with Palestinians on social media and on TV.

A tiny minority of Egyptians expressing opinions online appear to be either taking a neutral stand on the conflict or blaming Hamas for the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

Egypt on Sunday opened the Rafah crossing between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip a day earlier than scheduled to urgently transport the wounded from the strip for treatment in Egypt.

The crossing had been closed since Wednesday for the Eid Al Fitr holidays at the end of Ramadan although Egyptian ambulances still crossed into Gaza to bring critically wounded Palestinians for treatment.

Updated: May 18, 2021 09:55 PM

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