Egypt is “very clear” about its opposition to the pursuit of military action against Iran, an Egyptian source said earlier this week as political tensions between the US and Iran were escalating.
The source, who has been closely following the Iran issue in Cairo, spoke as Iran was announcing its plan to violate the uranium enrichment level it had committed itself to in the 2015 nuclear deal it reached with the US and five leading European countries.
The escalation between the US and Iran started in May last year, when US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the deal concluded by his predecessor Barack Obama.
During the past 13 months, the source said, regional countries, essentially Israel and Saudi Arabia, each of which has its own reasons for pressure to be exercised on Tehran, had driven the pressure for escalation against the country.
Over the past year, the source said, Egypt had been trying to argue the case for political dialogue.
Egypt has no direct influence on the issue, but it had expressed its apprehensions about any possible military attack against Iranian targets in the region to regional and international countries who shared its apprehensions about picking a military confrontation with Iran, he said.
This was especially the case since no careful assessment had been done on possible repercussions in the region, which was already in turmoil.
“We are carefully following French attempts to introduce de-escalation, and we are hoping they will work,” said another Egyptian official later in the week when France announced plans to send an envoy to Tehran to try to reduce the tensions.
One reason Egypt is particularly apprehensive about any escalation against Iran is its assessment that if attacked directly or indirectly Iran would use all the cards at its disposal in the region, including Gaza.
A scenario that Egypt particularly fears is that Iran could lean on its allies in Gaza to carry out proxy retaliations that could aim at Israeli targets. “It is already a very fragile and week-by-week truce that we are working with all the parties to keep between Gaza and Israel,” the official commented.
Over the past few months, Egypt has been “very clear” in telling the Islamist group Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2006, to act firmly against any attempts at “provocation” that could be used by Israel to start an assault on Gaza.
It is five years since Israel’s last war on the impoverished and largely isolated Gaza Strip. In July 2014, Israel’s war on Gaza, labelled Operation Protective Edge, cost the lives of over 2,000 Palestinians and led to further deterioration in already poor living conditions for the over one million people living there.
“Every day is a clear reminder that we are living in a part of the world that has been totally forgotten by the rest of humanity. We are living amid piles of trash, with poor sewage, poor health services, poor electricity services, and poor everything, and on top of it all we are not even getting our salaries paid fully on time,” said Nizar, a Palestinian civil servant who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly by telephone from Gaza.
Nizar’s family had been suffering “enormously”, he said. “Everything is just so difficult: to get food for the children is difficult; to get medicine for any of them when they fall ill is very difficult; and we have no exit to hope for,” he lamented.
Nizar blamed the Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for “forcing so much hardship on the people” while trying to settle political scores with the Hamas leaders in Gaza by declining to pay civil servants their dues.
This had compounded the “tormented suffering” of the Palestinians in Gaza who were already living under a harsh Israeli blockade, he said.
This week, Israel allowed fuel into Gaza in a sign of its willingness to keep up with a truce that had been sponsored by Egypt. Israel is also negotiating with Qatar on its intention to build an industrial city in Gaza that would provide thousands of jobs for the largely unemployed population.
“We hear so many things about plans to improve our living conditions, but what we actually see is very little, if anything at all,” Nizar said.
The last thing that Nizar would wish to see is for Iran to come under attack and to call on its allies in Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad to act in retaliation by targeting nearby Israeli villages.
Israel is already building a 65km and six-metre high fence around Gaza and has been destroying any tunnels between Gaza and neighbouring areas to seal off the Strip.
According to the Egyptian official, there is no telling what could happen if “things got out of hand in the current confrontation between the US and Iran and took a bad turn that included Gaza.”
Egypt, the official said, knows very well that there are “cells here and there” that do not follow the orders of the Hamas leaders in Gaza or the leaders of Islamic Jihad.
“This is why we have to worry; if Gaza is implicated, we absolutely have to worry. The Strip is on our direct border, and the last thing we want is a confrontation with huge humanitarian costs,” he said.
Ahmed Youssef, a Hamas leader in Gaza, is convinced that “Gaza is too small and too dilapidated to be of any real significance in the Iran issue,” however. “We are just withering away here,” he said, lamenting the failure of the international community and the Arab world to help Gaza overcome the “horrific outcome of Israel’s last war on Gaza”.
“The world is not going to reach out to Gaza now. The world is too busy discussing the ‘Deal of the Century’ [on Palestine] and is forgetting about the people of Gaza who are suffering on a daily basis,” Youssef said.
A Washington-based diplomatic source said that all the plans relating to Trump’s vision for a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians that involved an economic package to improve the living conditions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank had been shelved.
This was due to the failure of “even the most enthusiastic Arab capitals” to give the deal a push, as had been demonstrated in a meeting hosted by Bahrain last month, the continued ambiguity about the fate of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who is going through another round of elections while still facing legal charges over corruption, and the firm refusal of Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza to talk about a deal that offers the Palestinians no statehood and no repatriation of refugees.
The most that Gaza could hope for now, Youssef said, was for Egypt to re-launch its reconciliation proposals between Hamas and the PA, “which will not be easy, as each side had points on which it would brook no compromise.”
“There might be a resumption of the talks, and we may see an Egyptian delegation coming to Gaza and going to Israel later this month, but things are still being discussed,” he said.
The other thing that Hamas might wish for, he added, was for Iran to escape from any military confrontation with the US because “clearly Iran has been able to arrange some political support for the Palestinians in Gaza, and a weaker Iran would not be in our interest.”
A Cairo-based European diplomat argued that Hamas was not in a position to lose the support, “financial and not only political”, of Iran, even if the financial support “has been dwindling considerably over the past months”.
According to the diplomat, Hamas is being denied other financial resources with the policy of Egypt to destroy all the tunnels with the Strip, the blockade that Israel is imposing on it, and the policies that the Arab Gulf countries have been taking against its citizens, including those of Palestinian origins, who had been finding ways of sending funds to Gaza.
He added that the Hamas leaders were already losing their popularity in Gaza and the last thing they would wish for was for “an even more complicated situation.”
Nobody wanted a crisis in Gaza with large humanitarian consequences. A de-escalation in the tension between the US and Iran might not be to the liking of some in the region, but it would spare the world, and certainly Egypt, from the consequences of an even more complicated situation in Gaza, he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: All eyes on Gaza