Middle EastAnalysis

Israel’s continuing war in Gaza complicates Egyptian balancing act

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi among Arab leaders turning to China for support

During Thursday’s meeting in Beijing of the China-Arab Co-operation Forum, Chinese leader Xi Jinping called for an end to Israel’s Gaza war, an international peace conference and the establishment of a Palestinian state. “As war is raging, causing tremendous suffering, justice can’t be absent and the two-state solution can’t be shaken,” Xi said. He pledged funds for humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

Unable to halt Israel’s US-backed offensive in Gaza or mitigate the devastating impact on 2.3 million Palestinians, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Emirati president Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Bahrain’s king Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Tunisian president Kais Saied and Arab foreign ministers participating in the forum have turned to China for support.

While Bahrain, the Emirates and Tunisia are far from the conflict, Egypt has been on the firing line since Israel launched its war on Gaza on October 7th in response to the attack by Hamas of the same day.

Having ruled Gaza from 1948 until Israel’s 1967 occupation, Egypt developed close ethnic, educational and cultural ties with Gaza that endured until Israel besieged and blockaded the coastal enclave in 2007 after Hamas seized control. As Hamas’s parent movement, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has been outlawed since Sisi took power in 2013, he has collaborated with Israel to isolate Gaza.

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Since the war, Sisi has stifled anti-Israeli protests in Egypt and refused entry to Palestinians fleeing fighting, but opened Rafah’s passenger terminal to lorries delivering aid. The flow ended on May 6th when Israel launched its Rafah offensive, reducing food, fuel and medicine by 67 per cent, reported the UN. Meanwhile, the Norwegian Refugee Council said 2,000 lorry loads of aid bake in the sun along the desert road to Rafah.

This week, Cairo suffered its first war casualties when two Egyptian soldiers were killed in cross-border fire with Israeli troops. Cairo’s English Daily News Egypt cited unnamed sources as saying the Egyptian soldiers had been “affected” by the Israeli bombing on Sunday that killed 45 Palestinians at a Rafah displacement camp.

Fearing a Gazan exodus into Egypt, Sisi warned that Palestinians must not be “forcibly displaced” after Israel took control of the border zone between Egypt and Gaza, a 100m-wide strip known as the Philadelphi Corridor. Egypt regards Israel’s action as a violation of the two countries’ 1979 peace treaty and the 2005 agreement on Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.

Egypt’s Al-Qahera News quoted an intelligence source who dismissed Israel’s claim that tunnels used by Hamas for smuggling were found under the border. “Israel is using these allegations to justify continuing the operation on the Palestinian city of Rafah and prolonging the war for political purposes,” the source said.

Israel’s rejection of the Egypt-Qatar ceasefire proposal accepted by Hamas has been considered a rebuff at a time of heightened sensitivity for Cairo. Egypt was accused of betrayal in 1979 when it became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Egyptians consider this a “cold peace” and there have been sotto voce domestic and strident Arab calls for Egypt to renounce the treaty.