Death in Gaza, ambivalence and anger in Cairo

If Egypt is to play a strong regional role then it must take the initiative to bring about a ceasefire to stop the slaughter of Palestinians

Abdallah Schleifer

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Whenever Hamas and Israel are at each other in that inevitably one-sided deadly protracted way we are again witnessing, I think of the late Moshe Dayan. Yes, Dayan - that leading hawk in the Israeli Labor party leadership who drove the Israeli Army’s stunning victory in the June 1967 war which I bore personal witness to, on the losing side.

I do not remember him as I saw him from the window of my extraordinary home in Arab Jerusalem - the victorious general in military dress striding across the platform of the Haram al-Sharif, that Noble Sanctuary the Israelis, with reason and the Western press without, prefer to call The Temple Mount. But rather, I remember him from sometime before the June 1967 war when Gaza was governed by Egypt, and Dayan addressed the angry Israelis of Sidrot – then the occasional target of Palestinian Fedayeen raiding from nearby Gaza, just as in recent years Sidrot has been the conventional target for short-range rockets from Gaza.

Are politically useful statistics about dead Palestinian civilians more important to Hamas than Palestinian lives?

Abdallah Schleifer

According to my memory, Dayan told the Israelis not to complain that the people of Gaza hate them. He, again according to my memory, said that Gazans hated them because the town was once a Palestinian village that was taken and leveled by Israeli forces. Dayan’s capacity for realism might have made him an Israeli peacemaker, if political circumstance and then death had not willed otherwise.

Violent displacement

Somehow, and not intentionally, that overriding fact of violent displacement, of what was thought of as a temporary flight that turned into permanent exile does not color, as it should, every news report from or about Gaza – that most of the families that populate Gaza were refugees or quite self-consciously descendants of refugees who fled to Gaza during the fighting in 1948, who lived for nearly 20 years under Egyptian military rule and since 1967 under Israeli occupation for decades and then under an Israeli siege.

They are rammed into Gaza -a crowded, sprawling concrete space so unlike the West Bank with its hill-side cities and villages of stone and terraced olive fields. Not to mention the lush valley that runs east of the Jordan River; where even in the refugee camps perched at the edge of the major West Bank cities one could breath. There, until 1967, Palestinians could easily travel with Jordanian passports for work to the Gulf which those Palestinian refugees settled on the East Bank of what remains of Jordan continue to do.

This is what is wrong with Israel; the de-facto ethnic cleansing of the Arabs in much of Palestine that began in late 1947 and carried on through 1948 accompanied by the seizure of “abandoned” Palestinian land, and again on a more limited scale in 1967. Such activities have been ongoing since then, with the spread of settlements.

Videos and still photos coming out of Gaza

And now, the videos and still photos coming out of Gaza and the rising number Palestinian civilians who have been killed and wounded in this latest conflict - these are the cruel fortunes of modern war.

Israel accuses Hamas of storing and firing rockets from civilian concentrations. That is in effect true, but every guerrilla army does that, and in the case of Gaza there are no jungles or mountain tops for alternative positions. Hamas again looks bad when it responds to the Israelis urging Palestinian civilians to evacuate northern Gaza where most of the rockets are fired from by asking or ordering Gaza’s civilians to stay on, despite being forewarned of imminent attacks, to “defy Israel.” Are politically useful statistics about dead Palestinian civilians more important to Hamas than Palestinian lives?

That the more than one thousand rockets fired into Israel (which nearly match the more than one thousand Israeli targeted attacks) have only managed to kill one Israeli does not indicate mercy hidden away in the heart of the Hamas command.
Hamas rockets are intended to kill civilians and the inadequacies of those rockets, as well as an extensive air raid shelter and civil defense system that is non-existent in Gaza, is the reason for only one dead Israeli and a handful of wounded.

The best one could say for Hamas is that they were stupid – they allowed Netanyahu to provoke them into starting a hopeless war when he ordered a massive search for the then supposedly still-alive kidnapped Israeli teenagers, rounding up Hamas cadre throughout the West Bank and in the process killing at least six West Bank Palestinians.

Writing this in the earliest hours of the day, I have no idea if even the U.N. mediated temporary humanitarian ceasefire agreed upon by both sides will endure long enough for food and medicine to be distributed in Gaza. And reports from Israel more than imply that if, after this brief U.N. ceasefire, Hamas resumes rocketing, than a full-scale invasion of Gaza and re-occupation is highly likely, as it is the only way for the Israeli Army ( with terrible implications for the people of Gaza) to really wipe out the rockets and mortars which they profess is their goal. Also stated, but not as boldly, is the aim to destroy Hamas: its political cadre and its fighting force, the well-trained and well-armed Izzidin al-Qassam Brigades.

Flocking to Cairo

Meanwhile, everybody seems to be flocking to Cairo, includin Tony Blair, John Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas to meet with President Sisi. The first ceasefire proposed by Sisi, accepted by Israel, approved by Abbas and by the Arab League was rejected as insufficient by Hamas, which of course makes Hamas look like the spoiler. Yet, the Hamas conditions in a way make sense and at least one condition – opening the crossings from Gaza to Egypt and to Israel for goods and people - is even alluded to in the Egyptian proposal, not as a condition for a ceasefire but to follow the establishment of security that would in turn follow the very ceasefire agreement that Hamas rejected. One also has the sense that within Hamas, there is a power struggle between the political leadership in Gaza and the military arm of Hamas. It was the military wing that first clearly and strongly rejected the Egyptian ceasefire proposal while the political leadership initially expressed suspicion and dissatisfaction. Formal rejection from the political leadership came only after the al-Qasaam Brigade’s rejection.

Sisi, and of course the prime minister and cabinet, are in a bind. If Egypt is to again play a strong regional role then it must, as it already has, take the initiative as the mediating force to bring about a ceasefire to stop the slaughter of Palestinians. But at the same time Sisi cannot but despise Hamas given its status as the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in arms and in power and is complicit, according to the Egyptian government, in facilitating jihadist terrorist attacks against the Egyptian army and police in the Sinai.

But a Palestinian source here who is close to Abbas told me there is a Hamas representative in Cairo to further explore possibilities in talks with the Egyptian government of a more lasting ceasefire agreement, which the Egyptian government could then offer up to the Israelis in a renewed effort to be the architect of a ceasefire.

The Egyptian public’s reaction is more difficult to chart. Aside from left-wing and Arab Nationalist intellectuals and students, most Egyptians are aware that the wave of truly destructive Israeli Air Force attacks followed the truly large scale rocketing by Hamas. It did not precede it. That is why public reaction, at least for the first week of this war, has been muted compared to the 2012 and earlier outbreaks of conflict between Hamas and Israel.

This time around, there is a strong presence of the foreign press in Gaza. Footage via satellite television of Arab civilians, dead and wounded amid the wreckage of their homes, cannot but erode that initial detachment particularly during Ramadan. Opinion has already started slowly to shift and if the Palestinian civilian death toll, and number of blown away homes and hospitals accelerates, rises, so too will public anger.


Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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