Egypt’s Perspective on Israel’s War against Hamas in Gaza

Dr. Michael Barak writes about the Egyptian discourse regarding Israel-Hamas war. This article is part of "The Struggle for Stability: Arab Reactions to the Hamas-Israel War", a joint MDC/KAS publication surveys conservative Arab reactions to the war, focusing on emerging trends and preliminary reactions to the war's first 3-4 months (October 2023-January 2024).

The Israeli military campaign aimed at eradicat­ing Hamas' control in Gaza, which was prompted by the terrorist attack on 7/10, is perceived unfa­vorably in Egypt due to the extensive loss of life and destruction of property witnessed in Gaza, suspicion surrounding the true motives driving the Israeli government’s conduct of the campaign, and the apprehension that Egypt may face an over­whelming influx of refugees. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that despite the ongoing war in Gaza, Egypt maintains its role as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, particularly concerning the issue of abductees. Furthermore, Egypt expresses hope that the culmination of the campaign will pave the way for renewed political negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, with the ultimate objective of achieving a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Pal­estinian conflict.

The 7/10 attack in the Egyptian discourse

Solidarity with the Palestinians

The public discourse in Egypt mostly avoids denouncing the terrorist attack conducted by Hamas and instead exhibits a level of acceptance and understanding, that perceives it as a justifiable reaction to the Israeli occupation. On October 7, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an official statement characterizing the Hamas attack as a Palestinian response to Israel's aggressive actions against Palestinian cities, while simultane­ously advocating for restraint and calm from both parties involved. Al-Kamal Sayyis, a representative of the opposition "National Coalition Party" within the leftist faction in Egypt, asserted that the attack was not an isolated event but rather a retaliatory measure in response to the actions of the far-right Israeli government, which seeks to undermine the Palestinian cause. Abd al-'Alim Muhammad, al-Ah­ram Research Center advisor hailed the attack as a triumph in strategic deception, drawing parallels to other historically significant instances of success­ful deception attacks such as the Egyptian decep­tion tactics employed during the 1973 war and the Japanese deception strategy at Pearl Harbor. In the perception of numerous Egyptians, the occur­rences of 7/10 profoundly undermined the prevail­ing Israeli notion of the Israeli armed forces' invin­cibility. Rifat al-Ansari, a former Egyptian diplomat who served at the Egyptian Embassy in Israel, said that "following the catastrophic defeat on October 7, Israel suffered a significant erosion of its military and intelligence standing, thereby enduring a last­ing decline in its military prestige [...]", while simul­taneously enduring substantial damage to its rep­utation as a democratic nation on the global stage in the aftermath of the Gaza bombings.

Several prominent Egyptian politicians and reli­gious leaders have vehemently denounced Israel’s military operation in Gaza. President al-Sisi has consistently criticized Israel, accusing it of employ­ing a disproportionate response that exceeds the boundaries of self-defense. Notably, on October 20, he authorized large-scale public demonstra­tions within Egypt, a rare gesture aimed at dis­playing solidarity with the Palestinian cause; It was likely driven by electoral considerations, aimed at garnering increased popular support for al-Si­si's presidential campaign. Mustafa Bakri, a Nas­serist and a member of the Egyptian parliament, cautioned against Israel exploiting the 7/10 attack to fulfill David Ben-Gurion’s vision of expanding Israel’s territorial boundaries through annexation of Gaza.

The al-Azhar Institute, renowned as a significant religious authority in Egypt and the Sunni world, categorized Israel's offensive on Gaza as an act of genocide and a grave violation of human rights. Drawing parallels between Israel, ISIS, and the Nazis, al-Azhar Institute underscored the perceived imminent demise of the "Zionist entity". Consider­ing these assertions, they urged the Muslim world to unite to halt Israeli aggression in Gaza. Al-Azhar Institute, traditionally regarded as the custodian of moderate interpretation to Islam, went farther and departed from its customary role by issuing a religious ruling that endorsed harm towards "Zionist settlers in the occupied lands." This ruling was justified on the grounds that these settlers, deemed as occupiers of Palestinian territories, therefore are not recognized as civilians. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of al-Azhar, went to the extent of commending the 7/10 attack and encour­aged Palestinians to persist in their armed struggle within Israel, even at the cost of dying as martyrs. The Coptic Church in Egypt also condemned the devastation of the Gaza Strip and called on the international community to prosecute the Israeli officials responsible for the war.

Standing Against Hamas

In addition to the chorus of support for Hamas, there exist Egyptian voices that denounce Hamas' assault on Israeli civilians. Ibrahim Issa, a prom­inent Egyptian publicist, asserted that while the Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation forces is deemed legitimate, the same cannot be said for the abduction and killing of Israeli citi­zens and their transport to Gaza, as this consti­tutes an act of terrorism. Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian intellectual, underscored the complicity of those who endorse the acts of terrorism perpetrated by Hamas, namely the rape of women, the abduc­tion of vulnerable children and adults, incursions into civilian residences during religious observances, and the killing of unarmed individuals. Ziada emphasized that anyone who justifies these actions is implicated in the crimes committed by Hamas. She even appealed to the Egyptian peo­ple to remember that the scourge of terrorism in Sinai was to a large extent the result of Hamas’ acts of subversion in that region, stating, "Hamas will always and forever remain a terrorist organization". She had to flee Egypt due to threats and impending prosecution for treason, due to her criticism of Hamas and her defense of Israel.

Abd al-Mun‘im Sa'id, a parliamentarian and promi­nent journalist in Egypt, concurred with the notion that the targeting of civilians and the subsequent abduction of individuals by Hamas constituted a grave misstep. He went on to elucidate that the extensive construction of 1300 tunnels from Gaza into Egyptian territory by Hamas undermined its credibility as a national liberation movement.

In the Egyptian discourse, there is also a concern about the consequences of the 7/10 attack and the ongoing campaign in Gaza on the stability of the Middle East. For instance, Abd al-Mun'im Sai'd expressed deep concern about the impact of the Gaza campaign following the terrorist attack by Hamas, saying that this impact extends beyond the reconciliation processes, the pursuit of regional peace, and economic prosperity in the region. It also affects the processes of economic and polit­ical reforms in some countries of the region over the last decade. In his view, the determination of Iran and its affiliates to sabotage these processes by exploiting the Palestinian issue intensifies this concern.

Dismantling Hamas?

Many Egyptians express scepticism regarding Isra­el's ability to attain its stated war goal of eradicating Hamas. Muhammad Abu al-Aynain, a parliamentar­ian in Egypt, posits that Israel's steadfast determi­nation to eradicate Hamas will engender a novel and more formidable resistance, thereby inciting an unparalleled surge of extremism. Al-Said Abd al-Hadi, the director of Horus University in Egypt, similarly contends that Hamas is unlikely to van­ish given its status as an armed faction, and in the event of its demise, another adversarial entity will emerge as a replacement. Wafa Sandi, a Moroc­can researcher at the "Egyptian Center," contends that Hamas should be viewed as a non-conven­tional guerrilla organization rather than a tradi­tional army, thereby rendering its elimination a challenging task. In her assessment, the duration of American support for Israel is subject to limita­tions, particularly considering the substantial num­ber of Palestinian casualties in Gaza. Consequently, mounting international pressure on Israel to bring an end to the conflict is anticipated. Furthermore, in her view, Israel disregards the notion of resis­tance deeply ingrained in the collective conscious­ness of all Palestinians, as exemplified by Hamas, "the eradication of this concept or the abrogation of the Palestinians’ entitlement to safeguard their territory and engage in resistance against the occu­pying force through all feasible means, represents an unattainable endeavor".

The Displacement of Palestinians from Gaza is a "Red Line"

Within the Egyptian public discourse, apprehen­sion exists regarding the potential inundation of the Sinai Peninsula with Palestinian refugees orig­inating from Gaza. President al-Sisi has issued mul­tiple warnings to Israel, notably during the peace conference held in Cairo on October 21, 2023, in his address expressing solidarity with the Palestin­ian people on November 23, 2023, and during his meeting with the King of Jordan on December 27, 2023. Al-Sisi emphasized that any coerced reloca­tion of Gaza residents to the Egyptian Sinai region would be deemed a "red line" that Egypt adamantly refuses to tolerate: "The elimination of the Pales­tine problem without a just solution will not hap­pen and under no circumstances will it be pursued at the expense of Egypt".

Al-Said al-Hadi, director of Horus University in Egypt, warned that such a scenario could severely damage Egypt-Israel relations and renew the atmo­sphere of war not only with Egypt but also with Leb­anon, Syria, Jordan and the West Bank. According to his perspective, Israel has two possible courses of action: firstly, to bring an end to the ongoing con­flict, thereby facilitating negotiations for the safe return of the abductees and the exploration of a political resolution to governance in the Gaza Strip, independent of Hamas; and secondly, to persist in the continuation of hostilities, leading to the unifi­cation of multiple war fronts against Israel and the potential escalation towards a full-scale war. Sev­eral Egyptian voices have raised concerns regard­ing the potential influx of Palestinian refugees into Sinai may overshadow Egypt’s notable achieve­ments in the development of the region in the eco­nomic and health sectors, as well as the successful efforts in eliminating the terrorist threat posed by ISIS. Some Egyptians, including Egyptian publi­cist Abdullah al-Sinawi, criticize Israel’s endeavors to gain control over the Philadelphia border axis under the pretext of eliminating the threat of the Hamas tunnels in the Rafah area, when it in his view intends to use this control to enable displacing the Palestinians. Diaa Rashwan, the head of the Egyptian State Information Service, refuted Israel’s assertions regarding the smuggling route between Sinai and Rafah. He emphasized that the interna­tional community is well aware of Egypt’s decade-long battle against terrorism in Sinai, during which approximately 1500 smuggling tunnels were erad­icated. Rashwan cautioned that Israel’s claims are aimed at legitimizing its efforts to occupy the Phil­adelphi Corridor (Saladin Axis) in the Gaza Strip along the border with Egypt, in violation of security agreements and protocols signed between the two nations. He also warned that any Israeli attempt to occupy the Philadelphia axis could pose a serious threat to Israel-Egypt relations.

The escalating likelihood of an Israeli military oper­ation in Rafah appears to further strain Egypt›s stance towards Israel. On February 18, Egypt indi­cated its readiness to provide guidance to the International Court of Justice regarding Israel’s legal transgressions in the 1967 territories. Subse­quently, on February 21, it submitted a plaintiff’s memorandum to the International Court of Justice, seeking legal recourse against Israeli policies that contravene international law in the occupied terri­tories. The aim is to compel Israel to withdraw from the 1967 territories, including East Jerusalem, and to provide compensation to Palestinians for the losses they have incurred due to the expropriation of their lands.

A Retreat in the U.S. Position?

The clear support of the Biden administration for Israel and its war in Gaza is also sharply criticized in the Egyptian discourse. Faiz Farhat, the director of the Al-Ahram Center in Egypt, has suggested that the West should reconsider its alliance with Israel. He argues that Israel has become a significant bur­den for the United States and European countries due to its increasingly aggressive behavior, which poses a threat to regional stability. Furthermore, Farhat highlights Israel’s divergence from Western values and the damage it causes to their image. He holds the United States accountable for its double standards, which were exposed during the war in Gaza. These double standards are evident in the selective promotion of human rights and demo­cratic values that solely serve the interests of the United States. Considering these circumstances, Farhat proposed that the Egyptian government prioritize the cultivation of its relations with China over the United States. One of the reasons for this recommendation is China's non-interference policy in the internal affairs.

Publicists in the Egyptian daily "Al-Shuruq" have accused the U.S. of complicity in the Israeli aggres­sion on Gaza due to its military, financial, and diplo­matic support to Israel, making it the only country capable of stopping the Israeli aggression. Senior officials within al-Dawa al-Salafiyya, a prominent Egyptian Salafi movement, asserted that Western support for Israel constituted a "Crusader-Zionist plot" to weaken Islam.

The Future of Gaza After the War

In the Egyptian context, there exists a unanimous consensus that following the cessation of war, it is imperative to reinitiate the political process between Israel and the Palestinians. This empha­sis stems not only from the need for Gaza’s recon­struction but also from a broader desire for a per­manent solution to the Palestinian issue, viewed by many as crucial for regional stability. Ibrahim 'Awad, a professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo, emphasized the imperative of incorporating the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza as a single political unit into any discourse concerning the prospective governance of Gaza to instill a sense of hope among the Palestinian population. Al-Sisi made it clear more than once that the only solution to the Palestinian issue would be in the recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians and the establishment of an inde­pendent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, even if demilitarized with a temporary international force that would maintain its secu­rity and the security of Israel. Hence, in his view, a road map must be drawn up that will lead to the revival of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority is mentioned more than once in the Egyptian discourse as the one who should be entrusted with the management of Gaza. According to the viewpoint put forth by the "Egyp­tian Center for Strategic Thinking and Research," it is argued that for the Palestinian Authority to bolster its legitimacy within Palestinian society, it is crucial to broaden its composition beyond Fatah representatives alone. In addition to Fatah, inclu­sion of representatives from Hamas and Palestin­ian Islamic Jihad is deemed necessary. Ibrahim 'Awad aligns with this perspective and advances the argument that the Palestinian Authority is plagued by a dearth of public confidence among Palestin­ians. Consequently, he posits that the inclusion of representatives spanning the spectrum of Pal­estinian society would diminish the potential for resistance against its governance. Awad further contends that, akin to Britain’s engagement with the IRA, Israel would be compelled to engage in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Muhammad Ibrahim Al-Dwayri, a former general in the Egyptian army, emphasized that despite the humanitarian crisis looming over Gaza, there exists an opportunity to establish a Palestinian state that would ensure future stability and avert further calamities in the region. He believes that achiev­ing this objective entails, among other measures, the engagement of the Arab League in the matter, the formation of a new technocratic Palestinian government in coordination with the Palestinian Authority, the withdrawal of Israel’s military from Gaza, and concerted pressure from the United States and European countries on Israel to cease hostilities and engage in peace negotiations aimed at establishing a Palestinian state.

As long as the war in Gaza continues, Egypt acts as a mediator between Israel and Hamas in order to achieve a bargain that will release the Israeli hos­tages and will bring a ceasefire in Gaza.

Summary and Conclusions

Since the ascent of al-Sisi to power, Egypt has been actively involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict thanks not only due to a desire to safeguard its national security and promoting regional stability, but also out of a perception that the Palestinian issue is a strategic instrument that bolsters its regional and international influence. Consequently, Egypt is meticulous in cultivating its image as a staunch guardian of the Palestinian cause. Abd al-Muhsin, who serves as the head of the Al-Ahram Management Council, has explicated that throughout the course of the four major conflicts with Israel (namely, the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973), as well as during the period of signing the peace agreement and in the present day, Egypt has consistently demonstrated its commitment to safeguarding the well-being of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, Egypt has actively devoted its endeavors towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Therefore, it’s not surprising that, the Egyptian media prominently emphasized the accolades expressed by senior Fatah official Muhammad Dahlan towards the significant role played by al-Sisi in foiling Israel’s proposed scheme to forcibly relocate Palestinians from Gaza to the Sinai region.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the severe condemnation levied against Israel, Egypt maintains the perspective that the conflict in Gaza presents a propitious juncture and a catalyst for compelling both Israel and the Palestinians to reengage in the political negotiations, with the aim of propelling forward the two-state solution. This approach is undertaken to preempt any potential reoccurrence of hostilities in the region. According to Jamal Abd al-Jawad, a consultant at the Al-Ahram Center, achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians is undeniably challenging given the influence of extremist religious factions in both Jewish and Palestinian societies. Nevertheless, he believes that it is achievable if moderate forces in both communities take proactive steps. In his own words, "The Middle East has fallen victim to the agendas of extremists on the Israeli and Palestinian fronts. Can we break free from this influence and escape this cycle of turmoil? Is it possible to diminish the influence of extremists on both sides and pave the way for the emergence of moderate, centrist forces committed to coexistence and peace?".

*This article is part of The Struggle for Stability: Arab Reactions to the Hamas-Israel War.

**For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file.

***The articles in this collection were written in January 2024 and prepared for publication in early March, before the most recent developments regarding Iran and Israel.