In a small cafe not far from the border with Gaza, Israeli reserve soldiers sipped coffee Friday morning and mused about what they might face if they are ordered to invade the densely populated coastal strip that is governed by the Islamist group Hamas.
On the television, Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil was giving a speech after a three-hour visit to Gaza in which he pledged support for Hamas. “This situation cannot be tolerated,” he said, referring to the Israeli bombing of targets throughout Gaza in retaliation for militants firing rockets into Israel. “The whole world has to intervene to stop the military operations on Gaza.”
Earlier in the day, Kandil had kissed the corpse of a Palestinian child – a dramatic sign of sympathy and one that was echoed in Cairo by Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi. “I say confidently that Egypt will not leave Gaza alone,” Morsi intoned in his Friday sermon delivered at Cairo’s Fatima al Sharbatli Mosque.
“Now, that’s great,” said one Israeli reservist who had fought in Gaza four years ago during Operation Cast Lead, a brutal military campaign that left 1,300 Palestinians dead. “This time when I go into Gaza, they have their big brother watching them.”
As violence escalated between Israel and Gaza on Friday, with many anticipating a weekend order to invade, a realization was growing across Israel’s political and military echelons that the Arab Spring had changed the equation in Israel’s dealings with Hamas-run Gaza: Unlike four years ago, the Hamas Authority is no longer an isolated entity, estranged from its Arab neighbors.
Four years ago, Hosni Mubarak, then Egypt’s president, quietly shut Egypt’s border crossing with Gaza at Rafah. Morsi has thrown it open 24 hours a day so that any wounded Gazan could seek treatment in Egypt.
In the wake of Kandil’s visit, Tunisia’s foreign minister announced that he, too, will visit the besieged enclave. Oil-rich states in the Persian Gulf announced that they will provide support and backing to the people of Gaza. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah Party has long battled with Hamas, expressed support. The largest anti-Israel demonstration in Egypt in decades drew tens of thousands into the streets of Cairo on Friday.
“Clearly, Hamas has felt emboldened by the changes in the region generally, and that has redounded to their benefit,” Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, told reporters in a telephone conference call.
In Jerusalem, Foreign Ministry officials said the situation was “infinitely more complex” in light of the Arab Spring movements that swept across the region.
“We are not dealing with known entities in the region around us the way we used to. We are dealing with unknowns of the most dangerous kinds,” said one Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters.
He said that there was worry across Israel that regimes destabilized by the Arab Spring such as Syria, Jordan and Egypt could try to focus attention on Gaza as a way of diverting attention from their own domestic woes.
Meanwhile, Israeli military officials argued that regime changes in Libya and Egypt have allowed more weapons to be smuggled into Gaza, including Fajr-5 rockets from Iran that Hamas militants have fired deep into Israel, crashing harmlessly into open areas near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv but nevertheless bringing war closer to Israel’s main population centers than it has been in more than 20 years.
“The major problem . . . is the greater accessibility to Gaza from Sudan and Libya,” Oren said, referring to the decline in Egyptian vigilance since Mubarak fell 21 months ago. Egypt borders both Libya and Sudan, as well as Gaza. “And the flow of arms from Libya has been significant.”
Israeli military officials said they would have to “wait and see” how a military operation into Gaza would be affected by what they called “the new realities on the ground.”
But one sign that Israel may have taken the new realities of the Middle East into account was the death toll: After three days, 23 Palestinians have died in the Israel air assaults; in the first two days of Operation Cast Lead, which also began as an aerial assault before Israeli troops invaded a week later, 290 Palestinians were killed.
And there were many who thought that in Egypt’s case at least sympathy for Hamas would not lead to any concrete support for besieged Gaza. Zaid Akl, a political analyst at Cairo’s al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, noted that Israel had agreed to a cease-fire during Kandil’s visit, a sign that some sort of back-channel communication path existed.
“Yes, Egypt will play a bigger role than our former government used to play on behalf of the Palestinians. However, we will maintain the essential line of cooperation with Israel and diplomatic relations. We cannot be openly aggressive,” Akl said.
Akl said Morsi must balance the demands of many Egyptians, perhaps most, who have never embraced the spirit of the 1979 Camp David Accords, and the needs of the state. Morsi understands he cannot maintain relations with the United States and threaten Egyptian-Israeli relations. In many ways, Egypt cannot afford to make major changes, Akl said.
The result, Akl said, is that both Egypt and Israel find themselves in uncharted, murky waters.
Morsi’s goal is to show Egyptians that he is dealing with the situation differently from the way Mubarak would have handled it, while at the same time not angering the United States.
“The best way Morsi demonstrated that was to send Kandil to Gaza,” he said, allowing the Egyptian government to show sympathy for Gaza while back-channel coordination showed “we are not on bad terms with Israel.”
Some residents of Gaza said they appreciated the new tenor from the Arab’s world’s most populous state.
“There is a difference between Egypt in 2010 and Egypt 2012, they are with us by their hearts and souls,” said Maphaz Ahmed, 22, who works on an advocacy team to raise awareness about the Palestinian cause. “We feel that we are not alone.”
Special correspondent Ismail reported from Cairo. Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report from Beirut.