As Hamas confronts Israel, its Arab support swells

The last time Israel went to war with Gaza, it didn't have to worry about regional diplomatic fallout. The Arab uprisings have changed that calculus.

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters
Black smoke rises after an Israeli air strike in the central Gaza Strip towards Israel on Monday. The last time Israel launched a major military operation in Gaza, it could count on neighboring Egypt not to pose any significant opposition. But in the post-'Arab spring' Middle East, the region looks much different, and Hamas has found a new swell of support as it faces Israel.

The last time Israel launched a major military operation in Gaza, it could count on neighboring Egypt not to pose any significant opposition. Its then-ruler, Hosni Mubarak, was hostile to Hamas, the ideological cousin of the internal Egyptian opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood, and he kept Egypt's border with Gaza mostly shut as Israel waged a war that killed more than 1,000 Palestinians.

But in the post-“Arab spring” Middle East, the region looks much different, and Hamas has found a new swell of support as it faces Israel. Mr. Mubarak, ousted in a popular uprising in 2011, has been replaced by an elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead of a mostly sealed Gaza-Egypt border, it has become difficult to keep track of all the solidarity trips made to Gaza by Arab officials.

Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi sent his prime minister, Hisham Kandil, on Nov. 16. Islamist-led Tunisia's foreign minister followed the next day. The head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Saad el Katatni, is due to lead a delegation there today, followed by an Arab League delegation tomorrow.

The uprisings that displaced pro-Western autocrats who toed the US line on Israel have brought to power Islamist governments more friendly to Hamas, as well as more sensitive to public opinion typically supportive of the Palestinian cause. This has reshaped the regional dynamics, leaving Israel increasingly isolated. These new governments, along with Turkey and Qatar, have formed a vocal block of opposition to Israel's assault on Gaza.

“This is a significant change in the Arab reaction,” says Khalil Al Anani, a scholar at Durham University in Britain. The new Arab nations ready to take a stronger stance against Israel could change Israel’s calculations in favor of more restraint.

“It shows that Gaza is not alone. This will put pressure on Israel, and they [Arab states] can move further if they want, by lobbying internationally and putting a spotlight on Israel and its lack of interest in peace," he says. 

Reclaiming its role at the top

The crisis has also given Egypt, which is leading negotiations for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, a chance to reclaim its former leadership role in the region. An Israeli envoy arrived in Cairo yesterday for the discussions, and a senior Egyptian official said today there were "encouraging signs" that an agreement could be reached soon. Egypt also hosted the Turkish prime minister, the Qatari emir, and head of Hamas Khaled Meshaal Saturday for discussions on the crisis in Gaza. 

These countries have become new, or stronger, allies of Hamas over the past year as the militant group split with its former backers in Syria and Iran. Hamas left its former headquarters in Damascus after the group refused to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his brutal suppression of an uprising.

Their place has been filled by emerging Sunni Islamist governments, as well as Qatar, whose emir last month became the first head of state to visit Gaza since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007. 

Hamas official Ghazi Hamad says he is pleased with Egypt’s response to the Gaza conflict so far.

“I'm happy with the position of the new leadership in Egypt. I think they are completely different from the past,” he said by phone from Gaza. “In the past Mubarak was watching what's happening in Gaza and doing nothing. The statement issued by the Egyptian leadership, and sending a high delegation to Gaza, this proves that now there is a new voice, a new language.”

Yet he says he expects more from Egypt in the future, when its "internal situation is not so difficult," and is optimistic it will deliver. 

"Now Egypt can be the pioneer of a new era, a new political age, in order to create an Arab front to put more pressure on Israel, and stop its aggression against our people,” he says. "I think they can play a very important political role now with the other Arab countries – Tunisia, Libya, Qatar – and Turkey."

Morsi harshly criticized Israel in an address at a mosque after Friday prayers on Nov. 16. "I say to the aggressor to take a lesson from history and stop this farce and bloodshed or else you will face the wrath of the people and their leadership," he said. "Egypt today is different than Egypt yesterday and that the Arabs today are different than the Arabs of yesterday."

The blood Israel spills in Gaza, he said, “would be a curse” on it.

'No longer the Egypt you used to know'

But despite the confident rhetoric, Morsi is in a difficult position. The same senior Egyptian official acknowledged that today, saying the president is caught between following in Mubarak's steps and losing the public or taking a more decisive stance against Israel and risking losing international support, jeopardizing his plans for rebuilding Egypt.

Yet the official was passionate about the president's decision to take what he considers a more principled stand than Morsi's predecessor, and made it clear that Morsi was determined to do so.

"It is time to try to find a way of achieving peace based on justice. and justice based on [the principle that] all people living in this region have a right to live as human beings, not just one side," he says. 

His voice rose as he spoke about international assertions that Israel was acting in self defense. Israel's military says Palestinian militants have launched nearly 1,000 rockets into Israel since the start of the escalation on Nov. 14.

Egypt has let Israel know that "this is no longer the Egypt you used to know," he says. "We are accountable to the people who elected us." 

But how much Morsi can reverse more than 30 years of cooperation is limited, say analysts. He has indicated that he is not interested in ending Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. And while opening Egypt’s border with Gaza at Rafah to trade, which would undermine the Israeli blockade on the territory, would please Hamas, it would also give Israel an excuse to close its own borders with Gaza, making the welfare of the territory Egypt’s burden. 

“Of course there will be a clear turn around or change from Mubarak's policy toward Israel and the region,” says Emad Shahin, a professor at the American University in Cairo. “But on the ground of course Egypt is bound by certain legal limitations and its own limitations when it comes to capabilities and the extent to which the Egyptian regime can confront Israel.”

The Arab states’ reaction has so far been mostly rhetoric, and Morsi has not yet defined how he will deal with Jerusalem, says Anani of Durham University. “The reaction is to absorb anger in the street, more than acting based on clear policy or vision on what should be next.”

“The Israeli question, or the Israeli dilemma, he's trying to avoid,” he says. “Each time there is a crisis between the two countries or on the border, he's trying to postpone the issue. But until when? I think one of the issues of the Israeli attack on Gaza is to test the willingness of Morsi to continue the role as a neutral mediator between Hamas and Israel.”

The longer the violence goes on, the more anger among the public and the greater the pressure placed on Morsi and other Arab rulers, says Anani. So far, there have only been tiny protests in Cairo expressing anger at the Israeli assault and demanding more action from Egypt. But that could change if Israel launched a ground invasion, or continued to launch airstrikes and the civilian toll rises. If it goes on, Egyptians will likely think he isn't doing enough to stop it, and will pressure him to take bolder steps. 

That makes Morsi eager to bring the two sides to an agreement. Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, says that may be more possible now than it was under Mubarak because of Egypt's improved ties with Hamas.  

"Egypt now is a much more credible negotiator. It has bargaining power with both sides and not just one," he says.

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