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Two calls to Egypt from Gaza and Al-Aqsa

The equation has become inverted, with Egypt baring its teeth in the face of the anger of Palestinians at the Rafah crossing while adopting quiet diplomacy in dealing with Israel's confiscation and Judaisation of Jerusalem.

This is nothing new. Indeed, perhaps the only novel thing about it is the coincidence that the two have been seen in one historic moment, which highlights the misery of the irony of the situation. The battle of the Egyptian authorities against the Gaza Strip and Hamas during the past eight months has assumed a special position on their agenda and in the media outlets that support the government. While threats dominate Cairo's relationship with the Gaza Strip, silence and careful, positive cooperation rule Egypt-Israel relations. Although this calm cooperation was a closely-kept secret during the rule of Dr Mohamed Morsi, it was still characterised by mutual mistrust, while the relationship with Hamas and the Gaza Strip was in stark contrast to what it is now.

This situation has been turned upside down, with mistrust towards Hamas and public signs of affection and trust for Israel; that's the situation according to the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel, set out in a paper published on January 15 by the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, of which a summary was punished by the Jerusalem Post. Mazel attacked Western countries and media outlets which regard the new situation in Egypt as a coup. He also called on the West to provide all forms of assistance to the current authority, considering it the only authority waging a relentless war on Islamic extremism.

The deep doubts that the Israelis felt during the former regime were expressed by Professor Liad Borat last August at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. In his study, Borat noted that Morsi's government followed tactics that set the groundwork for getting rid of the Camp David Accords. On the one hand, Morsi took into account the position of the international community through his emphasis on the respect for international agreements signed by Egypt; on the other, he allowed his advisors to present the rationale for repudiating the said agreement after accusing Israel of not sticking to it.

The former deputy chief of staff of the Israeli army, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, said in an interview broadcast on Channel Ten's The Week programme on February 14th that the Egyptian army is an important ally of Israel and it would be in its best strategic interests to enhance its ability to restore stability and tranquillity in the country.

Last week, some activists in the Gaza Strip called for a sit-in at the Rafah crossing to demand its opening to meet the people's needs and their interests; their suffering has been intensified due to its closure for three weeks every month. When this message was sent to the Egyptian authorities and the sit-in was dispersed last Friday (Feb 28), the crossing had been closed for 25 consecutive days, and the number of those needing to travel through it reached 6,000, including ill people seeking treatment, students who need to reach their schools, and workers and employees who need to get back to work. Even after establishing the rule of opening the crossing once a month, the number of those allowed to pass through ranges from 500 to 600 people, which means that those who want to cross the border must wait months for the chance to do so. This has turned the Gaza Strip into a large prison, the inmates of which do not know why they have been detained. Many reject the idea of them being punished because they represent a symbol of resistance against the occupation and a symbol of steadfastness in the face of Israeli aggression.

I tried to investigate the situation, and I was told that the people in Gaza were exposed to this kind of abuse in 2006 and 2007 (during Mubarak's reign) when Hamas took office as the government in Palestine after it won the legislative elections, but the people's suffering subsided gradually after that. The situation then changed when President Mohamed Morsi was elected, as the Rafah crossing was open on alternate days but this only lasted until June 30 last year, when the situation went back to that of the height of the crisis during Mubarak's rule. It is ironic that since June 30th, although the Rafah crossing has usually been closed, the Beit Hanoun (Erez) crossing has stayed open, even in times of Israeli attacks against the people of Gaza.

The officials in the Gaza Strip believe that the accusations made against Hamas regarding its involvement in acts harming the security of Egypt are baseless. They cite the fact that no fair investigation has proven any illegal activity by any of its members, despite the fact that there are numerous reports and claims by the media demonising Hamas constantly. One of these officials has said that it would be illogical for Hamas to agree to a truce with Israel if it is deliberately compromising Egypt's security in any way.

Hamas accepts the investigation of the claims made against the movement by the Egyptian General Intelligence Agency, which has been dealing with the Gaza file since the beginning. The agency was the main party in all contacts made between the Egyptian authorities and Hamas. It is worth noting that General Intelligence officials were present in every meeting between Dr Morsi and Hamas officials. The Palestinian faction also accepts the results of any investigation conducted by any independent party, either an Egyptian legal party or one associated with the Arab League.

At the moment, Hamas accepts the idea of preventing its members from going through the crossing, but believes that there is no justification for punishing the sick Gazans and those who have interests and needs they must attend to, especially those whose lives are at risk. What was the Egyptian response to the message sent by the sit-in that lasted five days? The Egyptian newspapers summed up the response in talk about the security alert and raising it to the highest level in anticipation of the protesters having the potential to storm the crossing. In this regard, Al-Shorouk (March 1, 2014) quoted a military source who said that Field Marshall Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi had issued instructions to the commander of the second field army to take all necessary measures in the Rafah area and deal with those trying to storm the crossing with all of the force at his disposal. The source also added that the government had given Hamas officials strongly-worded warnings that anyone trying to storm the crossing will be dealt with forcefully and Hamas will be responsible for them.

While Egypt raised the maximum level of preparation to deal with the protesters in front of the Rafah crossing, the Knesset was discussing a draft bill giving Israeli sovereignty over Al-Aqsa Mosque, by granting authority to the Israeli Ministry of Religious Services rather than the Islamic Waqf in Jordan. The bill provides for "allowing the Jews to enter Al-Aqsa Mosque at any time and from any door for prayer, which will open the door to dividing prayer time in the mosque between Muslims and Jews."

My colleague, Dr Saleh Al-Naami, followed the discussion in the Knesset, and in a letter he told me that during her defence of the bill, Likud MK Brigadier General Miri Regev, a former spokeswoman for the Israeli army, described the Muslims who pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque as "Muhammad's animals", and said that in Israel they defend the rights of animals but they do not defend the rights of the Jews to the Temple Mount (the Jews' name for Al-Aqsa Mosque Sanctuary ). She also said that they should be hearing the Shema Israel Prayer (an important Jewish prayer) and should not allow the Muslim declaration of faith "There is no god but Allah" to be said in Al-Aqsa Mosque. In support, Likud MK Moshe Feiglin said that "When we run from the Mount we lose the legitimacy to our presence in Tel Aviv; whoever rules the Mount rules the country." He claimed that the right of the Jewish people to pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque is derived from the fact that Israel is a "Jewish state". Jewish Home MK Shuli Mualem said that the Jewish people should enter Al-Aqsa Mosque as they are the "rightful owners", unlike the "thieves who sneak past the police guards". She added, "We will not wait for Jordan's permission before seeking pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, and we will pray in it to mark our sovereignty over the Mount."

In another context, Maariv newspaper reported that the King of Jordan and the president of the Palestinian Authority urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene in order to prevent the change of the legal status of Al-Aqsa. Israeli sources have said that if the bill becomes law then Netanyahu may stall its implementation as he is aware of the catastrophic consequences that will arise. These sources did not rule out Netanyahu's resorting to stalling on the grounds that the matter could lead to compromising Israel's national security. Israeli Army Radio quoted specialist sources saying that the proposal will be binding for the government if it is supported by the majority and, if so, it will become a turning point for successive Israeli governments dealing with the issue.

The response in Jordan was quick. Two days after the proposed bill was presented to the Knesset, the Jordanian Parliament decided to expel the Israeli ambassador from Amman and recall the Jordanian ambassador from Tel Aviv. The parliament also called on the government to draft a bill cancelling the Wadi Araba Agreement (peace treaty) signed by the two countries in 1994, a decision that must be approved by the King and government before being implemented. In Egypt, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Islamic Research Institute condemned the proposal in the beginning, followed by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, who called on the Arab and Islamic countries, and the rest of the world, to take a firm stand against Israel's blatant violations against Islamic sanctities. Foreign Minster Nabil Fahmi made a similar statement, but we saw no action being taken by the Egyptians, or even a hint that action might be taken with the faintest hint of anger.

Even Egypt's verbal condemnation did not use the harsh language Cairo used in its response to the people of Gaza who protested in front of the Rafah crossing. The Constitution Party is the only party that issued a strong statement condemning the Israeli proposal, but even it did not go further than asking the government to consult with others in order to give an appropriate response. This was despite the fact that Egypt has a number of cards to play in order to express its anger, the least of which would be summoning the Israeli Ambassador and informing him of the protest, summoning the Egyptian ambassador for "deliberations", and reducing the cooperation agreements between the two sides. We must also not forget in this regard that Cairo recalled its ambassador from Ankara and expelled the Turkish ambassador because Turkey disputed its new government, but the Egyptian voices who said that Egypt would restore its pride and honour from the 1960s neglected the issue and remained silent.

In addition to its significance as the first qiblah (direction of prayer) for Muslims, Al-Aqsa Mosque is considered to be a symbol of the cause that is tied closely to the security of Egypt and the Arab world, and determines the fate of the Palestinians. In the time of Arab pride, when the cause was a central issue in the Arab conscience, the Arab and Islamic world revolted in protest at the extremist Zionist who tried to burn the eastern wing of Al-Aqsa in 1969, which led to the destruction of priceless artifacts from the time of Salahuddin Al-Ayyoubi. As a result of this, the first meeting of Islamic world leaders was held in Rabat and they decided to establish the Organisation of Islamic Conference (now known as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation). However, when Israel is preparing to take control over the entire mosque, we find that there is a failure to act on the part of Egypt and the other Arab countries. Their positions on the issues indicate an apparent decline in the importance of the Palestinian cause and Al-Aqsa as far as they are concerned, which means the decline of pride and protection for the Arab world's security and future.

Translated from Shorouk newspaper, 4 March, 2014

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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