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Key test for Egypt's Morsi as Gaza conflict intensifies (+video)

Since taking office in June, Egypt's Islamist President Morsi has upheld Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and strictly controlled border crossings. Could the Gaza conflict change his calculus?

By Kristen J. ChickCorrespondent / November 15, 2012

Egyptians chant slogans against latest Israel airstrikes in Gaza during a protest in Cairo, Wednesday. In a televised speech Thursday, President Mohamed Morsi said Egypt will stand by the people of Gaza, and condemned Israel's airstrikes.

Bernat Armangue/AP

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Cairo

Israel's new air assault on the Gaza Strip, which has so far killed 15 people in the tiny enclave and raised the prospect of a longer conflict, has also presented Egypt's Islamist president with the first real test of how he will manage his country's ties with Israel. 

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The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi took office June 30 amid worry in the West that he would not uphold Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, while at home, where the treaty is unpopular, he faced pressure to reorient Egypt's foreign policy and take a stronger stand against his northern neighbor.

Now, his response to the crisis in Gaza could indicate the extent to which his foreign policy will be influenced by the ideals he espoused as a Muslim Brotherhood member, or whether it will follow the course laid out by his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak

Mr. Morsi's spokesman announced today that the president had instructed Egypt's prime minister to visit Gaza tomorrow in a show of solidarity with the Palestinian people,. If the visit occurs, it would be a bold move by the new president.

But so far, there have been few other indicators that Morsi will break strongly with the past. Last night, Morsi's spokesman announced the recall of Egypt's ambassador to Tel Aviv. But Mubarak himself did the same several times during his rule. Morsi also reopened Egypt's Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which was closed today for the Islamic new year holiday, but it remained open only to those with government permits to cross, as well as those wounded in the assault. Mubarak also allowed wounded Palestinians to seek treatment in Egypt during the last major conflict in Gaza – Israel's three-week ground assault that begin in late December 2008. 

In a televised speech today, Morsi said Egypt will stand by the people of Gaza, and condemned Israel's airstrikes. "The Israelis must realize that this aggression is unacceptable and would only lead to instability in the region," he said. 

In an airstrike yesterday, Israel assassinated Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas's armed wing, Ezzedeen Al Qassam Brigades. Israel continued to pound the tiny coastal enclave by air, land, and sea. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)  said they hit 156 targets in the enclave, most of which they said were rocket launchers. The strikes killed 15 people, eight of whom were civilians, according to Reuters. Hamas and other militant groups responded by launching rockets of their own, killing three Israelis. The IDF said 200 rockets had been launched at Israel since yesterday, 135 of them today.

This latest escalation began Nov. 8, when a small Israeli military incursion into Gaza provoked a gunfire exchange and a 12-year-old Gaza boy was killed by Israeli fire. The two sides exchanged attacks until Nov. 12, when Palestinian militant factions agreed to a truce, and rocket fire from Gaza mostly, though not completely, lessened. Israel's strike against Jabar broke the brief lull. 

Brotherhood calls for severing of ties

The Muslim Brotherhood, in a statement released yesterday, condemned Israel's "criminal aggression" and called on nations – starting with Egypt – to sever diplomatic ties and trade with Israel. The group also called on Egyptians to demonstrate in support of Gaza today and tomorrow.

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