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Cairo has backed away from its relationship with the Palestinians, but the two sides need each other now for any chance of brokering peace between Israel and Gazan leaders.
CAIRO, Egypt — “How are you doing?” 22-year-old Anas asks a young medical technician who adjusts his IV.
“Better than you, thank God,” says the technician, and the two laugh.
Anas Kamal Mohamed al-Yazri, now lying in a Cairo hospital bed, is from the town of Beit Hanoun in northeastern Gaza, where two weeks ago heavy Israeli shelling destroyed a hospital and a United Nations shelter.
A few days before, as Israeli tanks were firing on his neighborhood, Anas ushered his family into the car to flee. He ran back to get something inside the house, just as a tank shell struck it. Across his chest there is a perfectly straight horizontal line. Everything above it is untouched. Below it his body is pink and raw, most of the flesh badly burned. His right leg has been amputated below the knee, while the left has large metal pins in it. His right arm is in a cast.
All morning young Egyptian medical workers of about Anas’ age come in and out of the room to chat and adjust his medication, asking if he needs anything.
“A solution will have to go through Cairo.”~Qais Abdelkareem, member of the Democratic Front in Ramallah
Anas is one of only a small number of injured Gazans who have been allowed through the tightly controlled border crossing into Egypt during the monthlong Israeli offensive that, according to the UN, has left 1,869 Gazans dead, 423 of them children. Fighting resumed on Friday after a 72-hour ceasefire expired.
Egypt has refused entry to refugees through the Rafah border crossing and only 209, according to the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo, of more than 9,500 injured in the conflict have been brought to Egyptian hospitals.
Egypt has historically played a large mediation role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas, which is an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, enjoyed warm relations with Cairo under the government of Mohamed Morsi. However, the ousting Brotherhood President Morsi last summer by the Egyptian military marked a change in policy. On March 4 an Egyptian court banned Hamas’ activities in Egypt. The Egyptian army has systematically destroyed tunnels that run between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, through which basic goods denied to Gazans under the blockade as well as weapons are smuggled.
Despite these frayed relations, and despite Egypt’s recent presentation of a ceasefire agreement that met Israeli demands without input from the Palestinians, on Aug. 2 a delegation of Palestinian lawmakers arrived in Cairo, where they are engaged in indirect talks with an Israeli delegation.
A 72-hour ceasefire that went into effect Tuesday held until Friday morning. Rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip just after it expired, and Israel resumed shelling, killing a 10-year-old child.
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The Palestinian delegation remains in Cairo to move forward with the Egypt-mediated talks. Egypt, for its part, has called for the immediate reinstatement of a ceasefire and a resumption of negotiations, saying that there were only a few issues that remained to be addressed.
Members of the Palestinian delegation have praised the Egyptians' role in the negotiations. “The meeting was good and positive,” said Izzat Risheq, a member of the political bureau of Hamas and a participant in the talks, after an initial meeting in which a unified Palestinian delegation shared their demands with Egyptian intelligence chief Mohamed Farid el-Tohamy. “Hamas welcomes the role of Egypt.”
But the Palestinian decision to deal with Egypt despite ongoing differences ultimately appears to be a practical one. “No one can get around Egypt and its role,” Risheq said. He acknowledged that there has been “tension” between the two in the last year.
Hamas has “realized that if they want a solution it will have to go through Cairo,” agreed Qais Abdelkareem, another delegation member and member of the Democratic Front in Ramallah. He added that the Egyptian authorities’ decision to allow Hamas members of the delegation to attend may be a message: “We had the impression that they [the Egyptian government] are ready to reform their relations with Hamas but with certain conditions.”
Accordingly, delegates appear ready to shelve concerns about the Egyptian-Palestinian relationship for the time being. “The only adequate thing is to have freedom of movement,” said Abdelkareem of the situation at the Rafah border crossing. “But this is an issue we agreed is only a Palestinian-Egyptian question, it is not part of the negotiations that are going on now.”
Hamas may be taking the practical road, however, because there is no other option. Commentators have remarked that the response not just from Egypt but from Arab governments to the latest bloodshed in Gaza has been far more muted than during previous offensives, perhaps in part due to these countries’ common fear and dislike of political Islam, which Hamas advocates.
Anas, one of those fortunate enough to leave Gaza for medical treatment, is being cared for in Cairo’s Palestine Hospital along with 11 others from Gaza. The hospital was, built by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s brother in the 1970s in part to provide Palestinians abroad with medical services. Three other patients who were brought over from Gaza died from their wounds.
Anas Kamal Mohamed al-Yazri, recovering from his injuries at Cairo's Palestine Hospital. (Laura Dean/GlobalPost)
Despite his injuries, Anas says he is lucky to be alive. “When all my relatives and loved ones were around me [in the hospital in Gaza], it was the most beautiful moment, when everyone who loves you is around you.”
At another bedside in same hospital, Rajaa al-Handam lies nearly unresponsive with injuries all over his body. He and his 14-year-old son were caught in an air assault on Rafah. He is allergic to the pain medication he was given so he is in near-constant agony, says his brother, Hisham, who came over from Gaza with him. The Egyptian authorities allow one or two people to accompany each injured person, depending on the severity of the injury. Before moving to the Palestine Hospital where he shares his brother’s room, Hisham said he slept on the street for four days while Rajaa was in a government hospital, and paid for medications and blood himself.
Outside the room, Hisham whispers that Rajaa’s son was killed in the attack that wounded him, but no one in the family has yet told him.
Over the last month, over 200,000 Gazans have fled their homes but remain within the territory, stranded with no safe place to go. Not until they become a casualty will they even have a chance of setting foot on Egyptian soil, and probably not even then. Members of the Palestinian delegation said the Egyptian government assured them that more of the wounded would be let through, and on Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry announced that the crossing was now open for humanitarian aid.
A real discussion of the strained Egyptian-Palestinian relationship will need to be discussed at another time “in a more relaxed atmosphere,” Abdelkareem said.