Egypt and Palestine: Who is defending who?

Egypt's stance on what is currently happening in Gaza has reopened many wounds. It has raised the issue of Egypt's relation with the Palestinian cause, along with all its confused aspects and unanswered questions. Some are now lamenting the era of late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Well-known Palestinian author and former minister Freih Abu Middein expressed this in an article published last week on the Rai al-Youm website. "A special relation was established between Abdel Nasser and the Gaza Strip," he wrote. "The strip had a special place in his heart. Abdel Nasser followed up on its affairs on a daily basis, and it always had the priority when it came to educational, health, economic or other issues."

He was strict regarding any violations made by his government figures towards the people of the Strip as Gaza offered heroic sacrifices during that phase. Perhaps Israel's Gaza massacre of Feb. 28, 1955, is the transformation point in Abdel Nasser's strategic thinking. It is perhaps what made him seek to break the monopoly of arms and nationalize the Suez Canal and what later led to the aggression on Egypt and Gaza and in which the latter bravely fought.

There were many Israeli massacres in Gaza, such as that in Khan Younes, when 1,550 were martyred. When Israel withdrew from Sinai and then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion refused to withdraw from Gaza, Abdel Nasser refused all solutions that did not include the strip. Its inhabitants took to the streets from March 7 - 14, 1957, until Gaza was returned to Egypt. Abdel Nasser did not abandon it.

Gaza experienced another war in June 1967, and bravely fought alongside the Egyptian army. It did not fall until the Sinai, Golan and West Bank did so. Gaza adopted resistance the moment it was occupied, and Abdel Nasser remained fond of Palestine and Gaza until he passed away. "If Abdel Nasser had been alive, would he have left Gaza behind him?" asked Abu Middein. "Would he have let Gaza be besieged, starved and slaughtered?"

One of the interesting ironies is that while many in Egypt think it is defending Gaza and is victim of the strip, the common belief in Gaza is that it is defending Egypt and sacrificing for its sake.

Fahmy Howeidy

It's as if we are talking about ancient history! But this is an era which our generation actually witnessed before new generations fell victims of confusion. The enemy thus turned into a friend, and the friend into an enemy. Palestine paid the price of this miserable transformation.

Amid this new situation, many view Gaza and the Palestinian cause as a burden to Egypt, one it has long carried and sacrificed for by engaging in many wars and offering thousands of its sons as martyrs. Some politicians and journalists base their statements on this common belief. Such views need to be broken down to set things straight.

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One of the interesting ironies is that while many in Egypt think it is defending Gaza and is victim of the strip, the common belief in Gaza is that it is defending Egypt and sacrificing for its sake. I have heard Palestinian intellectuals say the "curse of geography" has made Gaza the buffer that prevents Israeli expansion into Egypt. They say if it had not been for Gaza - which contains more than 2 million people and shares a 13-kilometer borders with Egypt - Israel would be standing at Egypt's eastern entrance.

Israel has been looking forward to this since 1948. Back then, Israel occupied Gaza when it was under Egyptian control, but Israel withdrew upon Britain's warning. Then Israel reoccupied it in 1956. Following Russia's warning, it was returned to Egyptian control in 1957. Israel occupied Gaza for a third time in 1967. It remained under direct military occupation until 2005, when Israel withdrew after suffering a lot from its presence there. By that time, Gaza had become included in the autonomy policy as per the Oslo Agreement signed in 1993.

Gaza paid the price on behalf of Egypt

During these phases, Gaza paid the price on behalf of Egypt and because of it. This happened when the Egyptian army entered Palestine in 1948 with other Arab armies in compliance with an Arab League decision. It happened when Egypt was subjected to Israeli, British and French aggression in 1956. Gaza also paid the price during the 1967 war, which erupted after Abdel Nasser closed the Strait of Tiran, preventing Israeli ships from passing.

The president's decision to close the strait was due to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's threat to occupy Damascus. During these three rounds, Gaza paid the price of being Egypt's neighbor. It was occupied, and its people's blood was heavily shed. This is always recalled by Palestinian intellectuals whenever this question is raised about who defended who.

However, this raises another question. Is it true that Egypt fought its wars to defend Palestine? The common answer in Egypt is yes. This is a response marketed by media outlets, while history says otherwise. On April 12, 1948, when the Arab League decided to send Arab armies to Palestine after the British mandate ended, many countries responded to this decision. Egypt was among the first countries that did so. Other countries included Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

It is well known that the Egyptian government objected to interfering in Palestine at first, as Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi Pasha's opinion was that Egypt could co-exist with a Jewish state on its eastern border.

However, Egypt's King Farouk supported sending Arab armies, either due to his competition with Jordanian King Abdullah, or because he wanted to lead the Arab world. Farouk thus ordered the army to get ready for war. On May 15, Egyptian troops - including 9,000 officers and soldiers led by Ahmad Ali al-Mwawi - began their operations in Palestine.

The year of 1948 was the only time in which Egyptian armed forces took out to clash with Zionist gangs in Palestine. The decision was made by the Arab League, and it was taken to confront a threat to Arab national security. Other than that, Egypt did not engage in any war against Israel with the aim of defending Palestine.

The 1956 war was led by France, Britain and Israel to topple Abdel Nasser. The 1967 war was due to his support of Syria and to closing the Tiran Strait. Back then, what was known as the War of Attrition against Israel happened within efforts to remove the repercussions of aggression. This is the slogan Abdel-Nasser raised back then and he's exceeded the idea of liberating Palestine with this slogan. As for the 1973 war, its aim was to end the Israeli occupation of Sinai since 1967.

The wars that Egypt got involved in after 1948 were Egyptian patriotic wars mainly aimed at defending national interests. It is thus impossible to generalize and claim they were launched for the sake of Palestine. Abdel Nasser's stance against Israel was part of his stance against colonization. This could also be seen in his support for national liberation movements that resisted France in the Arab Maghreb and Britain in Africa.

This analysis - if true - leads us to another result worth further detailing.

Political and media circles say Egypt sacrificed 100,000 martyrs in defense of the Palestinian cause. No fair researcher can ignore what Egypt offered to serve the cause, but support was mainly political, particularly under Abdel Nasser. Regarding the issue of 100,000 martyrs. no more than 11,161 Egyptian troops were killed in Palestine during the 1948 war, including 100 officers, 861 soldiers and 200 volunteers (the names of martyrs from the armed forces are recorded).

This figure was cited by Egyptian military historian, Major-General Ibrahim Shakib, in his book "Palestine war 1948 - an Egyptian vision." This number did not differ much from the evaluations of American sources. Israeli sources, however, exaggerated a bit (the Jewish Virtual Library said the number was 2000.) Shakib said Arab armies altogether endured 15,000 martyrs and 25,000 injured, while Israel lost 6,000 with 15,000 injured.

Former Defense Minister Mohamed Fawzi said the number of Egyptian martyrs from the 1956 war was around 3,000, while the number from 1967 was around 10,000, and 5,000 in 1973. This means that the total number of martyrs from 1948 until now is no more than 20,000. The allegation of 100,000 martyrs has no scientific or historical basis.

Regarding Egypt's mainly politically support, the military performance of the Egyptian and other Arab armies in 1948 was weak in general, though there were some exceptional heroic acts carried out by certain individuals. When Arab armies got involved in the war, they were in control of 73% of the land while Israelis did not control more than 27%. When the war ended, both parties had exchanged these shares.

The "Atlas of Palestine," by Dr Salman Abu Sitta, explains this in detail and attributes it to the weakness of Arab armies. He says Israeli gangs outnumbered Arab troops and surpassed them in military competency (officers of these gangs had fought in World War II).

Abdel Nasser stood by the Palestinian people and the resistance, while his successor Anwar Sadat turned against them and harmed the cause by signing a peace treaty with Israel. Hosni Mubarak followed Sadat's footsteps, to the point where he was described as Israel's strategic treasure. The situation has taken a turn for the worse, with the closing of the Rafah border crossing preventing injured people from receiving treatment and after your read the news of what happened since the initiative was made until the Shjaya massacre was committed.

This article was first published in Ashourouk on June 39, 2014.

Dr. Fahmy Howeidy has worked in journalism since 1958 for Egypt's Al-Ahram Foundation. He is currently the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Al-Ahram newspaper. Previously, Howeidy served as the Managing Editor of Kuwait's Al-Arabi magazine and of Arabia magazine, which is published in London, UK in English. He is now fully dedicated to contributing to Al-Ahram and has a column each Tuesday published in six Arab countries in Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Majalla, and Al-Wafd Newspaper. Howeidy has had seventeen books published, including: The Quran and the Sultan, Awareness Forgery, In Order Not to be A Sedition, Islam in China, Iran from the Inside, Taliban, Establishing Due Rights, and The Crisis of Religious Awareness. Howeidy is a specialist in Arab and Islamic affairs.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:44 - GMT 06:44
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