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Israel-Hamas conflict: Why Egypt is destined to broker a peace deal

Egypt controls the Rafah crossing, the only official entry point into the Gaza Strip not controlled by Israel. Rafah is entry to Egypt's Sinai region where 'Israel seeks to push Gazan population'.

Sinai is Egypt, roared Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli while interacting with a band of journalists on Tuesday, adding that Cairo will allow neither being subjected to a forced reality nor the resolution of a regional issue at its expense.

Madbouli echoed what President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi emphasized earlier that it is important that the Palestinian people remain steadfast and present on their land. “Their struggle is cause of all Arabs,” Sisi had said strongly, in response to speculations that that Cairo may allow Gazans to migrate to Sinai instead of getting killed in refugee camps and flee to already overfilled camps in South Gaza where all basic needs like food, water, medicines, power supply are at the mercy of the Israeli government.

With Egypt not showing any bend and Israel being adamant on dragging the fight without facilitating humanitarian assistance, barring few trucks, an aid convoy is stuck as stand by at Rafah crossing from Egypt’s Sinai into Gaza. Hundreds of litres of blood collected largely from Egyptians, Arabs and Turks in a blood donation drive organised by Jordan, UAE and Turkey also stands unused along with these trucks. But there is no emergence of truck between regional powers that can decide use of this humanitarian assistance.

Egypt controls the Rafah crossing, the only official entry point into the Gaza Strip not controlled by Israel. In the past, Egypt has opened and shut this crossing to put pressure on Hamas.

Cairo’s call for ceasefire after heavy Israeli bombardment and civilian casualties in Gaza have been ignored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, a constant demand in Israeli discourse has been that Egypt must adjust Gazans into Sinai “to help create Palestinian state and mitigate flare-up possibilities.” This demand has resurfaced in discourse ever since the current conflict broke out.

Taking serious cognizance of it, Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit, an Egyptian, urgently appealed to UN Secretary-General António Guterres to condemn “this insane Israeli effort to transfer the population.”

Israel, which is immune to Egyptian demands, will have to win over Cairo to stop any smuggling and to arrest any Hamas officials who might try to flee to Egypt. In case Tel Aviv makes a proposal, Egypt will determine the terms of that agreement, and put up a heavy bargain to bail out itself from the mounting economic crisis that will fester more, once the conflict leaves a flood of humanitarian needs.

The United States can assist Egypt financially, mostly via its influence over international financial institutions, to which Cairo owes tens of billions of dollars. The United States can also assist Egypt in its fight against instability in Sinai.

Egypt has been a key negotiator in all recent Israel-Gaza (Hamas) conflicts. But, this time the conundrum for Cairo is more challenging. The public opinion is building up against the present government as daily gory news is trickling in from Gaza.

Such has been pressure on the al-Sisi government which is bracing for December presidential election that the North Sinai governor Maj. Gen. Mohamed Abdel-Fadil Shousha had to issue a directive for local authorities “to list schools, housing units and vacant land to be used as shelters if required.”

Sisi has called for an international summit to take place Saturday to discuss the future of Palestine.

It is believed and being reported by the Egyptian media that the summit will aim to focus on a regional solution to the conflict and especially exhort Arab nations to come forward for settling the Palestinian question. Egypt, according to analysts, wants all its concerns addressed before agreeing to play an active role in the Israel-Hamas endgame, or post-Hamas administration of Gaza.

“A major refugee influx is a red line for a president fighting for reelection in December. Egyptian lawmakers view it not only as a security risk but an impossible squeeze on an economy near bankruptcy and facing reforms through a $3 billion International Monetary Fund bailout (Cairo is now asking the IMF for more),” wrote Nosmot Gbadamosi, an expert on African affairs, in the Foreign Policy magazine.

Egypt’s inflation reached almost 40 percent in August, while its borrowing costs shot up following the Israel-Hamas war as investors weighed a possible Egyptian liability for refugees, almost half of whom are children. Egyptian officials said the country is already hosting 300,000 Sudanese refugees.

Apart from possible influx of Gazans, Israel’s “dictatorial” attitude, another headache for Egypt is Hamas. Cairo’s relationship with the groups has always been fraught, even though it has helped negotiate with the group for occasional ceasefires and prisoner exchange. The group, as we know well, emanated from the ideology of the extremist Muslim Brotherhood group, which despite facing ban in Egypt, originated and has been flourishing there. Hence no senior Hamas leader has ever found sanctuary in Cairo; they had been shuffling in other destinations like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.

For more than a decade in northern Sinai, Egypt has been fighting an insurgency that is composed of jihadis, Bedouin, and criminal gangs. Gaza smuggling operations have helped fund and arm the insurgents, and Egypt wants them stopped. Even more, Egypt fears that a flood of refugees from Gaza would destabilise an already troubled part of Sinai, putting demands on jobs and resources and further radicalising the local population.

“Now, with Israeli PM Netanyahu’s decision to make Gaza a Hamas-free zone, the Egyptian regime fears of a power vacuum being filled by other militant groups which will have massive spillover effect in the Sinai. Co-opting with another group may be a challenge. Moreover, the national security concerns are heightened in Egypt regarding massive displacement happening in Gaza towards. It may lead to permanent refugee influx in Egypt. This trend not only has the ability of demographic inversion in the country but also gives to more of Palestinian resistance in Egypt. With upcoming elections and dwindling economic prospects, Egypt cannot afford to host Palestinians in its territory. All these concerns along with limited regional influence puts Egypt in a difficult situation and minimises its role in the mediation process. Not by itself at least. It will require massive dependence on the Mideast Quartet (US, UK, Russia and EU) to work out in the end,” assessed Professor Manjari Singh of Amity University, Noida.

It is hard to predict who will have political power in Gaza in the coming months, but whoever  emerges victorious,  will first have to negotiate a deal with the Egyptians.