Egypt bolsters role in Gaza after brokering truce last year

After years of behind-the-scenes activity in the Gaza Strip, Egypt is going public.

Since mediating a ceasefire between Israel and the ruling Hamas militant group in Gaza, Egypt has sent teams to clear the rubble and promises to build sprawling new apartment complexes. Egyptian flags and billboards praising President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi have flourished throughout the Palestinian territory.

It’s a new look for Egyptians, who have spent years working quietly to encourage truce talks between Israel and Hamas and reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions.

This change could help prevent – ​​or at least delay – another cycle of violence. By portraying itself as a peacemaker in the Middle East, Egypt could also blunt efforts by the Biden administration and some US lawmakers to hold the country accountable for human rights abuses.

The 11-day war in Gaza last May “allowed Egypt to re-present itself as an indispensable security partner for Israel in the region – which it is – making it an indispensable security partner for the United States,” said Hafsa Halawa, an Egypt scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

“Gaza reminds everyone, yes, that you really can’t do anything without Egypt,” she said.

The increase in aid, along with its control over Rafah – Gaza’s only border crossing that bypasses Israel – gives Egypt leverage over Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has ruled Gaza since it ousted the forces loyal to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007.

Egypt joined Israel in imposing a crippling blockade on the territory after the Hamas takeover, but both countries have recently moved to ease restrictions, tacitly acknowledging that Hamas’ power is here to stay .

After brokering the informal ceasefire that ended the Gaza war, Egypt pledged $500 million to rebuild the territory and sent work crews to remove the rubble.

Although it is still unclear how much of that money has been poured in, Egypt is now subsidizing the construction of three towns that are to house some 300,000 residents, according to Naji Sarhan, deputy director of the Hamas-run housing ministry. Work is also underway to upgrade Gaza’s main coastal road. Sarhan said the projects will take a year and a half to complete.

“We hope there will be big batches of projects in the near future, especially the towers that were destroyed in the war,” he said.

Israel razed four skyscrapers during the fighting, saying they housed Hamas military infrastructure. He has not publicly released evidence supporting these claims, which Hamas denies. Construction materials will be shipped via Rafah.

Alaa al-Arraj of the Palestinian Entrepreneurs Union said nine Palestinian companies would participate in the Egyptian projects, which would generate some 16,000 much-needed jobs in the impoverished territory.

The Egyptian presence is palpable. Almost every week, Egyptian delegations travel to Gaza to inspect the works. They also opened an office in a hotel in Gaza City for permanent technical representatives.

Egyptian flags and banners of Egyptian companies fly on bulldozers, trucks and electric poles. Dozens of Egyptian workers arrived, sleeping in a makeshift hostel at a school in Gaza City.

Five days a week, Egyptian trucks loaded with building materials enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing — a stark contrast to the intermittent shipments arriving through an Israeli-controlled crossing.

Suhail Saqqa, a contractor from Gaza involved in the reconstruction, said the steady flow of Egyptian materials is essential.

“The goods are not restricted by Israeli crossings, which makes them important,” Saqqa said.

The projects are part of a broader realignment after years in which Gaza was caught in a standoff between Arab states following the upheaval of the 2011 Arab Spring protests.

A short-lived elected Islamist government in Egypt was closely allied with Gulf country Qatar and sympathetic to Hamas. He eased the blockade and brokered an end to a brief war in Gaza in 2012. But the following year he was overthrown by the Egyptian army.

Egyptian leader el-Sisi, who led the overthrow, initially took a tough stance against Hamas, ordering the destruction of a vast network of smuggling tunnels that had supported Gaza’s economy.

Qatar, which supports Islamist groups across the region, has meanwhile stepped in to provide humanitarian aid, including suitcases full of cash sent to Gaza courtesy of Israel.

The rivalry has intensified, with Cairo joining the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in blocking Qatar from 2017 until a year ago. But relations have improved, and Egypt and Qatar are now cooperating to provide aid that helps the Hamas government pay its officials.

Egypt’s growing role gives Cairo a powerful tool to enforce the truce with Hamas. He can close Rafah whenever he wants, making it nearly impossible for anyone to travel to or from Gaza, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians.

Egypt “can suffocate Gaza in an instant” if its demands are not met, said Maged Mandour, an Egyptian political analyst.

This could be enough to prevent a new outbreak of hostilities in the short term. But that doesn’t address the underlying conflict that has fueled four wars between Israel and Hamas and countless skirmishes over the past 15 years.

Israel and most Western countries consider Hamas a terrorist organization because of its refusal to accept Israel’s existence and its long history of murderous attacks.

Israel has imposed a policy of separation between the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, which flank Israel and, according to an internationally endorsed proposal, would one day form part of a Palestinian state.

Israel’s current government has ruled out any major peace initiative – even with Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank – but it has taken steps to improve living conditions, including issuing some 10,000 permits allowing Gazans to work in Israel.

Relations between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah party plunged to a new low last year after it canceled the first elections in more than 15 years. Repeated attempts at reconciliation – many brokered by Egypt – have failed.

But for Egypt and Israel, and for a US administration focused on bigger crises elsewhere, maintaining the status quo in Gaza might be enough.

“Egypt wants agreements or even pressure on Hamas so that the situation does not explode,” said Talal Oukal, a political analyst based in Gaza.

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Akram reported from Hamilton, Canada. Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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