CAIRO - As the Palestinian death toll approaches 400, much of popular anger
throughout the Arab world has been directed at Egypt – seen by many as complicit
in the Israeli campaign.
"Israel would not have hit Gaza like this without a green light from Egypt,"
Hamdi Hassan, MP for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition movement,
told IPS. "The Egyptian government allowed this assault on Gaza in hopes
of finishing off Hamas."
On Saturday (Dec. 27), Israel began a series of devastating air strikes on
targets throughout the Gaza Strip, controlled since the summer of last year
by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas. According to Israeli officials, the
campaign – which has included hundreds of air strikes – comes in retaliation
for rockets fired by Palestinian resistance factions.
More than 200 Palestinians were reportedly killed on the first day of the operation,
making it the single most lethal day for Palestinians in the history of the
60-year-old conflict. Four Israelis, meanwhile, have reportedly been killed
by Palestinian rocket fire since the air campaign began.
In the meantime, Israel has continued to amass tanks along its border with
the Gaza Strip amid predictions of an imminent ground assault.
"What's happening in Gaza represents an unprecedented crime against humanity,"
said Hassan. "Enormous military power – featuring the latest US weaponry
– is being brought to bear against a poverty-stricken and largely defenseless
Ever since Hamas wrested control of the strip from the US-backed Palestinian
Authority (PA) last year, Egypt – like Israel – has kept its border with the
enclave tightly sealed. The border closures, in tandem with the neutralization
of the strip's airports and maritime ports by Israel, has effectively cut the
territory off from the rest of the world, and brought it to the brink of humanitarian
"The international community has condoned the siege of Gaza and allowed
the Palestinians to be punished for democratically electing Hamas," said
Hassan, noting that the Islamist group swept the 2006 Palestinian legislative
Egypt has said it cannot reopen the Rafah crossing, the sole transit point
along Egypt's 14 km border with the Gaza Strip, in the absence of PA officials
and EU observers, as stipulated in a 2005 US-sponsored trilateral agreement
between Israel, the PA and the EU.
Critics, however, reject this argument, and say there is no legal justification
for keeping the border permanently closed to people and goods.
"Egypt isn't even a signatory to the agreement, which expired after one
year and was never renewed," said Hassan. "Those cooperating with
Israel are simply using this outdated agreement as an excuse to keep Rafah sealed."
Despite increasingly vocal demands – by both street protesters and opposition
MPs – to open the border to aid convoys in the wake of the recent Israeli assaults,
the Egyptian government has dragged its feet.
"For the first two days of the campaign, the authorities forbade all aid
convoys from entering Gaza," Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of Egypt's
Islamist-leaning Labor Party (officially frozen since 2000) told IPS. "On
the third and fourth days, limited aid was allowed in – but this was only due
to mounting popular pressure."
In a televised address Dec. 30, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak defended Egypt's
position by again referring to the 2005 border agreement. "Egypt doesn't
want to sanctify the division (between the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and the PA-run
West Bank) by opening the Rafah crossing in the absence of the PA and European
observers," he said.
For the last five days, Egypt has witnessed thousands-strong demonstrations
at university campuses, mosques and professional syndicates. Amid an increasingly
tight security presence, protesters have called for the permanent reopening
of the Rafah border crossing and the severing of Egypt's diplomatic relations
"That protests are being staged all over Egypt – and will persist as
long as the aggression continues – is an indication of the level of popular
outrage," said Hassan. "If the government doesn't change its position
and allow aid to flow freely into Gaza, the situation could become very dangerous."
Demonstrators in several Arab capitals have vented their rage outside Egyptian
embassies. Protesters have reportedly attacked Egyptian consular offices in
Sudan and Yemen.
"Demonstrations around Egyptian embassies abroad show that the Arab and
Muslim people across the region recognize Egypt's complicity with Israel in
keeping the border closed without legal justification," said Hassan.
Suspicions of Egyptian complicity with Israel against Hamas are not limited
to the border issue. Many also suspect a degree of Egyptian-Israeli coordination
in advance of the air campaign – an impression reinforced by the fact that
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was in Cairo, where she met with Mubarak
and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, less than 48 hours before the assaults
At a joint press conference with Aboul-Gheit in Cairo Dec. 25, Livni vowed
to retaliate against Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. "This
is something that has to be stopped," she said of the relatively ineffectual
rocket salvoes. "And this is what we're going to do."
While Aboul-Gheit used the occasion to publicly urge restraint by both sides,
many independent commentators believe that, while in Cairo, Livni received a
tacit go-ahead from Egyptian officials for the campaign.
"It was at the Livni-Mubarak talks that Egypt gave Israel the green light
to strike Gaza," said Hassan. Contentiously, he went on to point to statements
by Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum that Hamas had received false assurances from
Egypt, immediately following the Cairo talks, that an Israeli attack on the
strip was not imminent.
On Sunday (Dec. 28), a presidential spokesman strongly denied Barhoum's claims.
"No Egyptian official sent any assurances to Hamas in this regard,"
he was quoted as saying in the state press.
Misgivings about possible Egyptian connivance with Israel against Hamas have
not been limited to opposition figures and political commentators. On the campaign's
third day, thousands of demonstrators in Cairo chanted: "Oh, Mubarak, what
do you say? Why was Livni here anyway?"