Egypt reportedly played a critical role in securing the release on Monday of two more hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza. Egypt's assistance was acknowledged by Gal Hirsch, Israel's special envoy for missing and kidnapped Israelis. In a statement, he thanked the Egyptian government for its mediation efforts in helping free Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, and Nurit Cooper, 79, two Israelis whose husbands remain among the 220 other hostages still held by Hamas.
This is the second time that Egypt has quietly intervened to prevent or reduce violence in the long-standing enmity between Hamas and Israel. Days before Hamas terrorists stunned Israel on Oct. 7 by slaughtering 1,400 Israelis near Israel's border with Gaza, Egypt's chief of intelligence, Abbas Kamel, was said to have warned senior Israeli officials that something "big" and "worrisome" was taking place in Gaza and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ought to consider moving forces from northern Israel and the West Bank, where settlers and Palestinians have increasingly clashed, to the Gaza border. For reasons that remain unclear, Egypt's warning was not heeded; Israel's soldiers were kept in the West Bank.
Egypt usually has had far greater success operating behind the scenes than on the world stage. Consider the failed Arab "summit for peace" in Cairo this past weekend, which Egypt convened to try to de-escalate the violence in Gaza. Representatives of dozens of Arab, African and European countries tried to forge a consensus but, after a day of lofty rhetoric and mutual recrimination, they could not even agree on a joint statement, the traditional end to such largely symbolic gatherings.
Instead, the summit highlighted the deep divisions among the participants over the Hamas-Israel war, now in its third week — not only between Israel and its Arab "peace" partners but also between the Arabs and Europeans, and the Arabs themselves.
Days earlier, President Biden had agreed to meet the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, in Amman after his visit to Israel. But all three canceled the meeting in response to initial — and, it turns out, erroneous — reports that Israel bombed the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza.
U.S., French, and Canadian intelligence agencies have concluded that Israel was not responsible for the deadly explosion. The U.S. and Israel maintain that the probable culprit was an errant rocket fired from Gaza by Islamic Jihad, another of the Islamist groups that have contributed to Gaza's immiseration. Yet many Arabs prefer to blame Israel, rather than Hamas or Islamic Jihad, for the deadly strike.
The Arab leaders' panic was lamentably predictable. They are terrified of the reaction of the "Arab street" — that is, their own people.
At Saturday's summit, Egyptian officials said they hoped the meeting would end with a call for peace and the resumption of long-stalled negotiations to provide Israel with secure borders and the creation of a Palestinian state.
Instead, European delegates opposed the Egyptian draft of the declaration because it failed even to mention that Israel has a right to defend itself, albeit within the boundaries of international law. For their part, Israel's Arab neighbors accused the world of ignoring the plight of Gaza's 2.2 million Palestinians. The Gaza Health Ministry (aka, Hamas) says that more than 5,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli airstrikes and that almost a million people, half of them children, have been displaced.
Although Jordan's King Abdullah expressed outrage and grief about the violence against both Israelis and Palestinians, he focused his remarks on what he called the world's silence about Israel's bombing of Gaza. "The message the Arab world is hearing is that Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones," he said.
Israel has repeatedly warned Palestinians in northern Gaza to move to the southern part of the 28-mile-long Gaza Strip in advance of its planned ground offensive against Hamas — while continuing to bomb there. But recalling the permanent displacement of Palestinians who left their homes during previous wars with Israel, only to be barred permanently from returning, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Palestinians would not be displaced again or driven off their land. "We won't leave," he told the summit.
His statement, paradoxically, echoed that of Hamas, which also demanded that Palestinians stay in their homes, despite Israel's warning that anyone remaining in Gaza City and other northern enclaves would be considered part of Hamas during its planned invasion. If acted upon, this would be a violation of international law, since civilians may not be legally targeted unless they directly participate in hostilities. Hamas's use of its own citizens as human shields is legally and morally reprehensible, yet Arab leaders failed to decry that at the summit.
Despite its rhetorical devotion to the Palestinians, Egypt, which ruled Gaza unhappily from 1949 to 1967, has repeatedly refused to open its own sealed border with Gaza to give Palestinians refuge. While Arab leaders have condemned Gaza's "strangulation" due to Israel's sealing of its borders with Gaza after numerous Hamas rocket attacks, they have rarely noted Egypt's complicity in keeping Gaza closed.
Egypt's stance is both practical and understandable. Struggling to house and feed its over 100 million people while battling inflation and a depressed economy, Egyptian officials have repeatedly said they cannot accommodate tens of thousands of Palestinians on Egyptian soil, even for a short period. Before the summit, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi asked why Israel did not relocate the Palestinians in its own Negev Desert. Then Egypt spent days negotiating the entry of truckloads of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. But it has repeatedly ruled out opening a humanitarian corridor in the Sinai, fearing that once Palestinians enter Egypt, they will never return to Gaza.
Egypt, in fact, has been waging its own relentless battle to keep militant Islamists out of Cairo and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, especially since 2007 when Hamas seized control of Gaza from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority in a brief civil war.
Sisi despises Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian-born mother of all modern Islamist fundamentalist groups. In 2013, Sisi came to power in a widely supported coup d'etat that overthrew the hugely unpopular but elected Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi. Ever since then, Egypt has fought militant Islamists in the northeastern Sinai, an insurgency that peaked in 2013 and has now been largely suppressed — paradoxically, with Israeli military assistance.
Egypt has long been schizophrenic about the peace with Israel that then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat forged in 1978. After Sadat's assassination by militant Egyptian Islamists, his successor, Hosni Mubarak, honored that treaty but never fully explained to Egyptians why peace with Israel was in Egypt's security interests. Relentless propaganda against Israel helped fuel the feeling of many Egyptians that their leaders betrayed Palestinians and the Arab cause that Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's beloved authoritarian leader, long championed. Egyptian leaders ever since have been constrained by fear of their own people's rage.
As Steven A. Cook, an expert on Egypt, recently noted, the statement issued by Egypt's foreign ministry on Oct. 7, which was not released in English, failed to mention Hamas's savage attack on Israel. Instead, it warned of the consequences of an Israeli escalation after a "series of attacks against Palestinian cities."
Shortly before the Cairo summit, the Sisi government, under fire in Washington and Europe for human-rights violations, including the banning of anti-government protests, permitted Egyptians to turn out by the tens of thousands — but only to denounce Israel's bombing of Gaza.