WASHINGTON — To understand the reluctance of Hamas to accept a cease-fire plan mediated by Egypt, one needs to look no further than the coverage Egypt’s state-owned news media offers of the Israel-Hamas fight over Gaza.
Azza Sami, a writer for the government-owned al Ahram newspaper, took to Twitter to thank Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his campaign in Gaza. “Thank you Netanyahu, and God give us more men like you to destroy Hamas!” the tweet read.
Another columnist wrote that he could not support the people of Gaza, more than 650 of whom have been killed in Israeli air and artillery strikes, since they’d voted for Hamas. And Tawfik Okasha, an Egyptian television presenter sometimes referred to as Egypt’s Bill O’Reilly, offered a personal insult to all of Gaza.
“Gazans are not men,” Okasha told his viewers. “If they were men they would revolt against Hamas.”
The Egyptian media’s attacks on Hamas highlight a major change in Middle East politics that has limited American influence over the Israel-Hamas conflict: The Egyptian government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is virulently anti-Hamas, and Hamas does not trust it.
That hasn’t stopped Secretary of State John Kerry from using Egypt’s proposal as a template for a cease-fire arrangement. On Wednesday, Kerry left Cairo for Jerusalem to keep pushing for the deal even after Hamas rejected it and Egypt declined to alter its terms.
Kerry’s move to Jerusalem was designed in part to increase the involvement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the talks and present him as a voice for Palestinians in Gaza, even though Hamas governs Gaza. Abbas historically has proven to have little influence over Hamas, but with both Israel and the United States refusing to talk to Hamas, which both countries have labeled a terrorist organization, and Hamas cool to Egypt’s role, Abbas has emerged as the best alternative for a mediator.
Kerry “is trying to light the fuse to solve the problem,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research center.
Egypt’s inability to be an honest broker with Hamas is a turnaround from the role it played in 2012, when Israel and Hamas last came to blows. At that time, Egypt’s president was Mohammed Morsi, a longtime figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive Islamist society that had close ties with Hamas.
Last week, Egypt presented a cease-fire deal that was similar to the 2012 deal. But while the deal was endorsed by the Arab League and Abbas, Hamas called it effectively a surrender that met none of its demands.
Most noticeably missing from the deal was agreement to a Hamas demand that Egypt open its Rafah border crossing with Gaza so supplies and food could cross in. Egypt refused, though el-Sissi said in a speech Wednesday that Egypt would open the border once a cease-fire is in place. Israel opposes opening the border, fearing Hamas would use the opening to bring in weapons and ammunition.
Egyptian reluctance to allow unfettered access across the border should not have been a surprise. Since Morsi’s ouster a year ago, the Egyptian government has launched a bloody campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and its perceived supporters. Thousands have been detained.
The Egyptian military also destroyed hundreds of tunnels between Sinai and Gaza, and in an expansion of its campaign against Islamist extremists, it allowed Israeli forces to target Islamists within the Sinai.
In contrast, Morsi openly defended the rights of Palestinians in Gaza during his presidency and worked minimally with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood renounced the 1979 Camp David accords and before becoming president, Morsi would not utter Israel’s name.
Indeed, among the charges the Egyptian government has made against Morsi is that he escaped prison during a 2011 uprising with the help of Hamas operatives who orchestrated his breakout. Some Egyptians believe that Muslim Brotherhood supporters who’ve attacked Egyptian security personnel since Morsi’s fall were trained by Hamas.
Coverage of the Israel-Hamas conflict in Egypt’s official media seems like a government effort to bolster its own campaign against the Islamists. There is little evidence in the news coverage that Egypt has fought four wars with Israel since 1948.
The media blitz also seems to be affecting Egyptian public opinion, which in past conflicts had been strongly pro-Palestinian. Street protests on behalf of the Palestinians have been larger in London than in Cairo, though it’s hard to know if that’s because public sentiment has changed or is the result of Egypt’s anti-protest law, which requires government approval for any demonstration.
“It is difficult to discern what is orchestrated and what is genuine,” said Michele Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Perhaps the circumstances on the ground in Gaza will be the ultimate arbiter of Egyptian public sentiment, Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for Egypt’s secular al Dostour Party, said during a talk Tuesday at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
The increased death of Palestinians “will not only sway the Egyptian population” but the world’s, Dawoud said.