Egypt sees long-term national security interest in helping out Gaza
CAIRO – Egypt achieved a set of long-term goals by brokering a ceasefire to end an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, experts say.
Cairo’s mediation, they argue, extended Egypt’s influence in the Gaza Strip and aborted a plan that could have seen most of Gaza’s population end up in neighbouring Sinai. Now, Egypt is accelerating a reconstruction drive in Gaza and providing aid and services, required to encourage Gazans to stay in the Strip.
Palestinian sources revealed to The Arab Weekly that Egyptian efforts were aimed at reviving the Gaza Strip and turning it into a vital territory that boasts all kinds of comforts and attractions. Egypt also hopes to link the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, in line with an understanding with the US administration, to pave the way towards resuming negotiations and creating suitable ground for a two-state solution. Egypt’s push to achieve this objective is reportedly taking place in coordination with the Palestinian Authority and in cooperation with various other political forces and movements.
In the coming days, Cairo will welcome general secretaries from different Palestinian factions to discuss in particular reconstruction, an end to divisions and the formation of a government of national unity.
In recent years, Egypt has worked to abort a plan that was unveiled during the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule. This scheme is said to have consisted in cutting off part of Egypt’s Sinai region and annexing it to Gaza to form nucleus for a settlement and a final solution to the Palestinian conflict, wbacked up by an American-brokered land exchange deal.
On Monday, the head of Egyptian intelligence, Major General Abbas Kamel, alongside Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar, laid the foundation stone for the Egypt Residential City project in Gaza, in the presence of Palestinian faction leaders and ministers from the Palestinian government in Ramallah.
The city project is located on an area of 100,000 square meteres on the Nuseirat Sea and consists of 10,000 housing units that could serve as a prelude to re-establishing ties between Egypt and Gaza.
During his recent visit to Gaza, Kamel inspected the sites proposed to launch reconstruction in Gaza as part of an initiative put forward by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which includes allocating $500 million as an Egyptian contribution to reconstruction projects.
In November 2015, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas confirmed that he had rejected an Israeli offer of 1,000 kilometres in the Sinai region, during the era of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. This plan, reportedly drawn up by Ariel Sharon’s government, was to exchange land between Egypt and Israel so as to expand Gaza’s borders toward the Sinai to absorb Palestinian refugees and the human surplus in the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli plan named “Giora Eiland ” was rejected by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak when it was presented by the US envoy Dennis Ross, in exchange for giving Egypt $12 billion and an area of land in the Negev region.
Washington re-presented the plan to the Muslim Brotherhood, with an offer of $20 billion and a larger area of land (1600 kilometres) after the group came to power in 2013. The group’s leadership agreed to the deal, but it was met with a firm rejection by the Egyptian Army and the defence minister at the time, Field Marshal Abdelfattah al-Sisi.
The idea of turning Sinai into an alternative homeland for the Palestinians was a major concern for the military establishment. In fact it speeded up the deployment of troops in the Sinai and crossed security barriers imposed by the peace agreement with Israel. These moves eventually allowed Egypt to overwhelm terrorist groups that expanded their presence in the area.
The Egyptian security forces were able to close an estimated thousand tunnels running for 13 kilometres beneath the border between between Palestinian Rafah and Egypt. Over the years, the use of the tunnels had shifted from smuggling goods and easing Israel’s siege on Gaza to smuggling weapons and extremists to Sinai, with the aim of spreading unrest. Egypt later sank a steel wall underground to disrupt the subterranean networks.
Egyptian expert Major-General Hamdi Bakheet said the presence of political will to deal with any conspiracies against Sinai is one reason the plan to exploit Egyptian lands to solve the Palestinian issue was aborted.
The latest developments in Gaza, he added, helped in recognising Egypt as a main actor in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and in rendering Cairo’s influence acceptable in the Gaza Strip.
Bakheet added in statements to The Arab Weekly that Cairo had set rules to ensure that Hamas would not be turned into a threat to Egyptian national security.
According to Bakheet, Egypt reached out to all Palestinian factions, out of a belief that Fatah alone would not be able to decide for others, nor indeed would Hamas.
He stressed that the army’s success in controlling the tunnels and inflicting painful strikes on terrorist groups had undermined many of the plots aimed at taking advantage of the security vacuum in the Sinai.
The tightening of the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip in 2008 led to about 750,000 of its residents storming the border with Egypt. The incident served as an early warning to Egyptians, who increased efforts to prevent the creation of a new demographic reality in Sinai.
The Egyptian regime began to realise the danger of the lack of population in the Sinai and embarked on a broad development plan aimed at transferring ten million Egyptians to live there. Cairo then constructed a number of tunnels under the Suez Canal corridor to connect the east of the Canal (Sinai) to its west and to open the door for movement from different cities to Sinai.