Building equipment, sent by Egypt for Palestinians, arrive in the southern Gaza Strip, June 2021

Egypt steps up Gaza role after brokering last year's truce

With Egyptian flags and billboards praising Cairo adorning Gaza's ruined streets, Egypt hopes to present itself as a Mideast peacemaker, and blunt efforts by the U.S. to hold the country accountable for human rights abuses

Associated Press |
Published: 02.14.22, 10:35

After years of working behind-the-scenes to aid and ensure stability in the Gaza Strip, Egypt announced is going public.
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  • Since mediating a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza's ruling Hamas militant group, Egypt has sent crews to clear rubble and is promising to build vast new apartment complexes. Egyptian flags and billboards praising President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi have sprung up across the Palestinian territory.
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    Building equipment, sent by Egypt for Palestinians, arrive in the southern Gaza Strip
    Building equipment, sent by Egypt for Palestinians, arrive in the southern Gaza Strip
    Building equipment, sent by Egypt for Palestinians, arrive in the southern Gaza Strip, June 2021
    (Photo: Reuters)
    It is a new look for the Egyptians, who have spent years working quietly to encourage Israel-Hamas truce talks and reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions.
    The shift could help prevent -- or at least delay -- another round of violence. By presenting itself as a Mideast peacemaker, Egypt could also blunt efforts by the Biden administration and some U.S. lawmakers to hold the country accountable for human rights abuses.
    The 11-day Gaza war last May "allowed Egypt to once again market itself as an indispensable security partner for Israel in the region" which it is "which in turn makes it an indispensable security partner for the U.S.," said Hafsa Halawa, an expert on Egypt at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
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    Men pose for a selfie in front of building equipment, sent by Egypt into Gaza
    Men pose for a selfie in front of building equipment, sent by Egypt into Gaza
    Men pose for a selfie in front of building equipment, sent by Egypt into Gaza
    (Photo: Reuters)
    "Gaza is a reminder to everybody, effectively, that you can't really do anything without Egypt," she said.
    The expanded aid, along with its control over Rafah -- the only Gaza border crossing that bypasses Israel -- gives Egypt leverage over Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has ruled Gaza since driving out forces loyal to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007.
    After negotiating the informal cease-fire that ended the Gaza war, Egypt pledged $500 million to rebuild the territory and sent work crews to remove rubble.
    While it remains unclear how much of that money has been delivered, Egypt is now subsidizing the construction of three towns that are to house some 300,000 residents, according to Naji Sarhan, the deputy director of the Hamas-run Housing Ministry. Work is also under way to upgrade Gaza's main coastal road. Sarhan said the projects will take a year and a half to complete.
    "We hope there will be large bundles of projects in the near future, especially the towers that were destroyed in the war," he said.
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    פינוי הריסות בעזה
    פינוי הריסות בעזה
    Removing rubble in Gaza after the May Conflict with Israel
    (Photo: EPA)
    Israel leveled four high-rises during the fighting, saying they housed Hamas military infrastructure. It has not publicly released evidence backing up the claims, which Hamas denies. The construction materials will be shipped through Rafah.
    Alaa al-Arraj, of the Palestinian contractors' union, said nine Palestinian companies will take part in the Egyptian projects, which would generate some 16,000 much-needed jobs in the impoverished territory.
    The Egyptian presence is palpable. Nearly every week, Egyptian delegations visit Gaza to inspect the work. They have also opened an office at a Gaza City hotel for permanent technical representatives.
    Egyptian flags and banners of Egyptian companies flutter atop bulldozers, trucks and utility poles. Dozens of Egyptian workers have arrived, sleeping at a makeshift hostel in a Gaza City school.
    Suhail Saqqa, a Gaza contractor involved in the reconstruction, said the steady flow of Egyptian materials is critical.
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    פינוי הריסות בעזה
    פינוי הריסות בעזה
    Removing rubble in Gaza after the May Conflict with Israel
    (Photo: EPA)
    "The goods are not restricted by Israeli crossings, and this makes them momentous," Saqqa said.
    The projects are part of a broader realignment after years in which Gaza was caught in a tug-of-war among Arab states following the upheaval of the 2011 Arab Spring protests.
    The Egyptian leader el-Sissi initially adopted a hard-line stance against Hamas, Egypt is now cooperating with Qatar to deliver aid that helps the Hamas government pay its civil servants.
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    נשיא מצרים עבד אל פתח א סיסי ועידה בשארם א שייח
    נשיא מצרים עבד אל פתח א סיסי ועידה בשארם א שייח
    Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi
    (Photo: AFP)
    The growing Egyptian role gives Cairo a powerful tool to enforce Hamas' compliance with the truce. It can close Rafah whenever it wants, making it nearly impossible for anyone to travel into or out of Gaza, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians.
    Egypt "can suffocate Gaza in a moment" if its demands are not met, said Maged Mandour, an Egyptian political analyst.
    That might be enough to prevent another outbreak of hostilities in the near term. But it doesn't address the underlying conflict that has fueled four wars between Israel and Hamas and countless skirmishes over the last 15 years.
    "Egypt wants understandings or even pressure on Hamas so the situation won't explode," said Talal Oukal, a Gaza-based political analyst.
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