Is Egypt Planning to Take Control of Gaza?

by Hugh Fitzgerald

The Egyptians have been heavily involved in ending the Gaza War and its aftermath. It was Egypt that was responsible for arranging the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. It is Egypt that has been the first state to pledge a massive aid package — $500 million – for Gaza. And it is Egyptians, with heavy-duty equipment – bulldozers, trucks, cranes –who have been arriving in the Gaza Strip to begin the enormous task of both clearing the rubble, and rebuilding the Strip. Whether Egypt is considering remaining in the Strip is discussed here: “Is Egypt planning to retake control of the Gaza Strip?,” by Khaled Abu Toameh, Jerusalem Post, June 10, 2021:

Scenes of dozens of Egyptian bulldozers, cranes and trucks entering the Gaza Strip last Friday have left some Palestinians wondering whether Egypt is planning to return to the coastal enclave it ruled between 1948 and 1967.

The Egyptian decision to send building equipment and engineers to the Gaza Strip came within the context of Cairo’s pledge to contribute to reconstruction efforts there after the recent

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi has pledged $500 million to help rebuild the houses and buildings that were destroyed during the fighting.

This is an enormous sum for Egypt to commit, and signifies Cairo’s deep interest in winning the gratitude, and allegiance, of Palestinians in Gaza. The Egyptians view Hamas as the local branch in Gaza of the Muslim Brotherhood, and therefore an object of suspicion and loathing. The Egyptians want their presence in Gaza to offer a sharp contrast to Hamas, which dragged the Strip into a war that devastated the area, while Egyptians and their equipment are very visibly in Gaza to repair the damage that Hamas brought upon not only itself, but on the civilians whom the terror group used as civilian shields, by placing its weapons and rocket launching pads in the midst of civilian areas, and even inside schools, hospitals, houses, and apartment buildings in Gaza. Egypt no doubt hopes to win the gratitude of Palestinians as it cleans up the rubble and begins the enormous undertaking of rebuilding.

The presence of the Egyptian construction teams in the Gaza Strip means that Hamas and other Palestinian factions will not be able to resume the rocket attacks on Israel, Palestinian sources told The Jerusalem Post.

“It will be hard for Hamas to initiate another round of fighting with Israel when there are many Egyptians inside the Gaza Strip,” one of the sources said. “If Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad start firing rockets at Israel while the Egyptian construction teams are working in the Gaza Strip, the two groups will get into trouble with Egypt.”

Egypt will have no patience if Hamas or the PIJ starts firing rockets at Israel while Egyptians are present in the Strip, putting them in danger of being hit either by Israeli airstrikes or by malfunctioning Hamas rockets that fall short, and land in Gaza. Egypt is intent on enforcing, if need be with force, the ceasefire it arranged, and will come down hard on Hamas if it dares to violate that agreement. Egyptian soldiers will likely be quickly brought in to suppress Hamas if, by firing on Israel, it endangers the lives of Egyptians trying to rebuild the Strip. That might include replacing the Hamas leaders and installing Egyptians in their stead. That’s the best way to ensure that hostilities with Israel do not resume, bringing with them further destruction to the Strip and misery to its people.

According to the sources, the Egyptians have warned Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar against initiating another round of fighting while Cairo pursues its efforts to help rebuild the Gaza Strip.

During the 1948 War of Independence, the Arab League established the “All-Palestine Government” to govern the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip. Palestinians living in the enclave were issued “All-Palestine” passports. Egypt did not offer them citizenship. After the dissolution of the All-Palestine Government in 1959, Egypt continued to control the Gaza Strip until 1967.

The Egyptians, however, never annexed the Gaza Strip and chose to administer it through a military governor.

“There are many rumors that the Egyptians are planning to return to the Gaza Strip,” said a veteran Palestinian journalist in the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave. “Many people here are convinced that the Egyptian-sponsored reconstruction work is part of a plan to pave the way for a permanent Egyptian security presence in the Gaza Strip.”

Could those rumors reflect a desire, on the part of many exhausted residents of Gaza, to have the Egyptians enlarge their security presence, and to keep Hamas from starting another disastrous war? Could some of them, having endured the misrule of Hamas, want to be ruled by Egypt?

The Egyptians played a crucial role in reaching the Israel-Hamas ceasefirethat went into effect on May 21.

The head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, last week made a rare visit to the Gaza Strip, where he met with leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian factions and discussed with them ways of maintaining the ceasefire and the reconstruction efforts.

Kamel’s visit to the Gaza Strip is seen by some Palestinian political analysts as a sign of Egypt’s intention to play a major role in the coastal enclave in particular and the Palestinian arena in general.

In Gaza, Egypt’s interest is clear: it wants to limit the power and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood – that is, Hamas. If possible it would like to replace the Hamas-run government either with Palestinian technocrats, or with Egyptians, who would already be present in the Strip both to administer the distribution of Egypt’s colossal donation of half-a-billion dollars and to oversee Egyptian engineers and construction workers, and their equipment, as they rebuild what Hamas caused to be destroyed.

“I don’t believe that Egypt wants to go back to the days when it was administering the Gaza Strip,” one analyst told the Post. “But Sisi’s decision to contribute to the reconstruction effort shows that he wants to be heavily involved with everything concerning the Gaza Strip.”…

Egypt may find that it can only hold Hamas in check by taking the reins of power itself. It could present itself to the Gazans as the savior of the Strip, both because it arranged the ceasefire that stopped Israel from bombing still more of Gaza, and because it is now the largest contributor to Gaza’s rebuilding, with its engineers and equipment much in evidence throughout the Strip. The presence of the Egyptian military – Cairo will undoubtedly choose to send a contingent of soldiers to protect their civilian workers – will make it possible for those Palestinians who up till now have been afraid of voicing their opposition to Hamas, to be emboldened to do so. Egypt, in assuming the task of distributing vast amounts of aid money to the Gazans, will be able to crack down on the massive corruption that characterized Hamas’ rule, with just two Hamas leaders, Khaled Meshaal and Mousa Abu Marzouk, each amassing a fortune of at least $2.5 billion.

The Gazans have repeatedly been brought low by Hamas, which has started four disastrous wars with Israel. Their leaders have already announced that they are preparing for the next round of hostilities with Israel. That’s not what Gazans wanted to hear. Egypt is best positioned to hold Hamas in check, and to prevent that folly of another war, by removing it forcibly from power, and putting in place a government consisting of both Egyptians and Palestinian technocrats. Would Hamas resist this development? How many Hamas fighters would want to challenge the Egyptian military on the ground in Gaza – a military not nearly as scrupulous about avoiding civilian casualties as the IDF?

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appreciates the efforts Egypt has been making to calm the situation and assist in the reconstruction efforts in the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian official in Ramallah told the Post….

Mahmoud Abbas especially appreciates Egypt’s ability to take the lead in reconstruction, thereby showing up the ineffectiveness in this effort – even the irrelevance — of Hamas, which is the party most responsible for the destruction in the first place.

“The Egyptians are working to achieve Palestinian national reconciliation and reunite the West Bank with the Gaza Strip,” the official said. “That’s why they have invited representatives of several Palestinian factions to Cairo. The Egyptians support the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem.”

Is it true that Egypt has no interest in possibly returning to the pre-1967 period, when Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip? Or is that simply the wishful thinking of a Palestinian official who doesn’t want to contemplate such an outcome? Might Egypt not conclude that such control is necessary to keep Hamas from starting yet another conflict with Israel, thereby leading to another round of destruction of Gazan infrastructure – the infrastructure that Egypt is right now rebuilding? Gaza is going to remain a problem for Egypt, no matter what, but isn’t it better to have the Strip firmly under Egyptian control rather than being ruled by the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Egypt’s military could finish the destruction of the terrorist infrastructure, including that part of the tunnel network that Israel did not get a chance to finish destroying. The Egyptians on the ground in Gaza could more easily seek out and find the places where 10,000 rockets are still hidden by Hamas, then seize and transfer them, say, to the Sinai or to Egypt’s Western Desert – either to be destroyed or, possibly, to become part of the Egyptian Army’s own armory.

Meanwhile, the Gazans’ lot should improve under Egyptian rule and with the deployment of Egyptian aid. An Egyptian civilian administration, intent on winning and keeping popular support, could be created for Gaza, one intent on winning and keeping popular support through ending the mismanagement and corruption that characterized the rule of Hamas.

Israel should welcome control of Gaza by the Egyptian military, that would keep Hamas and PIJ from starting another war, by seizing thousands of its warehoused rockets, and other weapons, by destroying more of its vast tunnel network, and by preventing Hamas from getting its hands on the aid from donors that Egyptian officials would be distributing. The last time the Egyptian military controlled Gaza, from 1949 to 1967, Israel and Egypt were enemies. Now they have a peace treaty, and are close collaborators on security, especially against threats from both the Muslim Brotherhood (which includes Hamas) and Iran. Israeli-Egypt relations are constantly improving. Egypt did not take Hamas’ side in the recent conflict; its role was as a neutral arbiter, promoting a ceasefire between the two sides. .

What would Mahmoud Abbas think of an Egyptian takeover in Gaza? Mixed feelings, no doubt: on the one hand, he would be pleased at the weakening of his archrival Hamas; on the other, he would not relish the removal of Gaza from his own possible rule. But could he openly break with Egypt, the most important Arab nation? After all, the Egyptians could claim, truthfully, that “we have assumed control in order to prevent the terror group Hamas from again leading the long-suffering people of Gaza into another disastrous war.” That would play well in Ramallah, and the PA might be willing to let the headache that is Gaza become Egypt’s problem.

Another round of fighting in Gaza, this one between Egypt and Hamas, may be in the offing. Stay tuned.

First published in Jihad Watch.


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