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Egypt returns to the Gaza strip

What happened: Egypt has begun sending convoys of engineers and building equipment into Gaza through the Rafah crossing to begin cleaning up the streets and reconstruction efforts following the May escalation between Israel and Hamas.

  • The decision, reportedly without the approval of Israel, comes after Egypt played a key role in brokering a ceasefire and is part of Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s promise of $500m to fund the rebuilding of areas in Gaza.
  • This week Israeli media reported that Israel asked Egypt to prevent the entry of cement and other building materials that could be diverted by Hamas for military use.
  • Whilst Israel is reportedly not opposed Egyptian engineering teams entering Gaza to help to clear debris left by the recent fighting, it is concerned that Hamas will force them to rebuild the tunnels that were destroyed.
  • Despite the concern of renewed fighting in Gaza over the March of Flags event in Jerusalem, far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir marched to the flashpoint Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City yesterday.
  • Ben Gvir waved an Israeli flag at the site, in what he said was a personal protest, after the Israel Police banned him from parading through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City to reach the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.
  • Hamas warned against harming al-Aqsa Mosque and said that it was vigilantly monitoring what it called Israel’s attempted provocations and aggression. Hamas’s deputy leader in the Gaza Strip Khalil al-Hayya also said that Hamas would not wait long to complete the ceasefire negotiations in the Gaza Strip.
  • A Hamas official told reporters this week that Egypt has reassured to them Israel will allow Qatari aid to be remotely transferred to Gaza by this weekend or next week at the latest. Israel is refusing to allow financial aid from Qatar into the Gaza Strip to be delivered in the same format (cash in suitcases) that was in place up until Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Context: Egypt is reasserting its role in Gaza by convening Palestinian groups in Cairo over reunification efforts, as well as mediating ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas.

  • Progress on both tracks remains slow and very difficult, and Egypt has already postponed Saturday’s meeting on reunification after it was discovered that gaps between Hamas and Fatah remain wide.
  • Israel is primarily concerned with reaching understandings first on the release of captive Israelis and two IDF bodies before discussing reconstruction efforts. Last week, for the first time in 13 years an Israeli foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, visited Egypt for talks with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shukri.
  • Israel, along with the international community, prefers that any reconstruction aid be delivered to Gaza through the Palestinian Authority and under a stricter verification mechanism than the current one supervised by the UN.
  • There are four reasons why Egypt is reaffirming its role in Gaza as it was prior to the 2014 war, which gave way to the ascendency of Qatar:
    • President al-Sisi had only come to power a few months before the 2014 war, but is now in a much stronger position.
    • Egyptian-Israel relations have improved a lot over security issues in the Sinai, as well as with energy links in the Eastern Med, whilst Egypt’s ties with Hamas deteriorated a few years ago due to Iran’s influence and Egypt now sees a good opportunity to reassert its leverage over Hamas.
    • Egypt deems its role in Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of its regional power status and is looking to reinforce that status with other major players who see an opportunity to help resolve the conflict, such as the UAE.
    • After being snubbed by the Biden administration during its first four months, Egypt’s role in securing an Israel-Hamas ceasefire led to a first phone call between US President Joe Biden and President al-Sisi, and Egypt is now hoping to secure more US favour with the Biden administration.

Looking ahead: On Tuesday the Security Cabinet said the annual flag march in Jerusalem would be permitted to take place in one week, if police approve the route.

  • Hamas has warned of “consequences” if the march passed through Damascus Gate, although this route is likely to be changed if the march goes ahead.
  • Israel has shown a high degree of flexibility in matters related to reconstruction for Gaza – working with Egypt, the UN, and with Qatar. This might again be the case now.
  • Israel will be ensuring that in the ceasefire talks, no clause or language in any exchange of positions should provide Hamas with a foothold in the affairs of Jerusalem – which was the reason Hamas decided to fire rockets toward Israel in the first place in May.

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