Although motivations are notoriously hard to discern, it could be maintained that a primary objective of the latest Israeli offensive against Gaza is to shape Egypt’s post-revolution policy toward the Palestinians, especially toward Gaza, before the country has put its own chaotic house in order.
This should serve also as a reminder to Egypt’s isolationists that international and regional players think Egypt is too important to be left to the Egyptians, and that these actors will try to manipulate the country’s domestic and external politics to their own advantage.
Whether the isolationists genuinely want Egypt to mind its own internal affairs or to seize on the opportunity to score points against the Islamists by depicting them as sacrificing scarce Egyptian resources for others, they play unwittingly into Israeli hands; for the world moves concurrently, and isolation can lead only to the diminishment of Egypt’s influence and status, as it did in times past.
President Mohammad Morsy has reacted swiftly to Israel’s assassination of Hamas’ main military commander, Ahmad al-Jabari, and to the massive bombardment and subsequent killing of Gaza civilians (more than 100 at the time of writing, including children). He recalled Egypt’s ambassador to Tel Aviv, dispatched his prime minister to Gaza, received Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for coordination, and mobilized other diplomatic channels.
These moves have been popular with large segments of the Egyptian public that were angered by the Mubarak regime seemingly giving the green light for Israel’s bloody operations against Gaza in 2008, which left 1,400 people dead and led to the wanton destruction of property and infrastructure.
An important factor in the Egyptian government’s reaction is also that Hamas is an offshoot of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas emerged during the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, fearing complete marginalization by the Islamist group, which shunned participation in the Palestinian national struggle that had been ongoing for 20 years before the uprising. But Islamists, in general, had also maintained a strong rhetorical anti-Israel stance during their long years in opposition, and it would have been untenable for them to act otherwise.
The Israeli government is now pressing to prevent a progression of Egypt’s position and to even restore Israeli-Egyptian relations to the cooperation of the deposed Mubarak’s era. Its ultimate goal is to have Gaza integrated into Egypt or to keep it entirely quiet. Its gambit is grounded in the belief that Egypt is weak at present and that, if it does not restrain Hamas, it will lose the support of Washington and European Union states which continue their colonial-like policies of standing behind what they dub “Israel’s right to defend itself.”
Egypt and other Arab and regional countries could do much to aid the Palestinians, without having to go to war with Israel. They could renew the Arab economic and political boycott of that state, or obtain a resolution from the United Nations General Assembly for an international boycott of Israel (Erdogan himself had already made such a proposal more than a year ago in an interview with Time magazine), similar to the one issued against the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Gulf countries could again levy a tax on Palestinians working there to finance those under occupation and wean them off Western handouts predicated upon Palestinian acquiescence. The Arab countries can, in this way, give the Palestinians an enabling context within which to launch protracted, peaceful protest against Israel, a form of resistance with which they have long experience.
If there is any “iron law” of Middle Eastern politics, it is that the Palestinians always lose, no matter what they do, how much they sacrifice, and what happens in the region — any gains they realize evaporate soon after they are won. Just to illustrate, those who send rockets from Gaza to Israel get pulverized by the Israeli war machine, while those in Ramallah who “behave” and concede even the right of the return for the refugees are rewarded with Jewish settlement expansion.
With the emergent Arab Spring, Palestinians began to hope that this iron law might bend. Israel’s offensive against Gaza is an attempt to abort such a possibility, by forcing Egyptian Islamists to basically continue the relationship with Israel as it was before the revolution. Should it succeed, the Palestinian loss would be fateful because it would begin to seem that a cozy relationship between Israel and Egypt’s leaders is in the nature of things, rather than the brainchild of an authoritarian, corrupt president.
But, so as to bring the Palestinian century-long struggle into fruition, the authorities in Gaza and Ramallah must pave the way — or be forced to do so by the Palestinian people — for a new political system that is representative of all segments of society outside and inside Palestine, including the dynamic “Arabs of 1948” in Israel, and retire the aging, mostly corrupt leadership that has lost legitimacy and the will to resist, and acquired the defeatist habit of handing Israel free, far-reaching concessions.
Only by putting their own house in good order could the Palestinian leaders be entitled to make claims on Egypt and the other Arab countries for sustained backing, and perhaps thus begin to reverse the law of always losing.
Sharif S. Elmusa is a Palestinian poet and professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. He is currently a fellow at the MacMillan Center at Yale University
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.