Nadia Abou el-Magd
The National
January 12, 2009 - 1:00am

Egyptian officials yesterday launched a public relations offensive aimed at defending the government’s policies towards the Gaza Strip and tempering growing criticism of its handling of the two-week-long conflict.

In a press conference organised by the state information service, officials sought to present “Egypt’s position on the situation in Gaza and the Rafah border”, and distributed a 16-page pamphlet with further elaboration in an explicit effort to answer criticism of the government’s tepid response in the early days of the Gaza conflict, as well as to tout recent efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

“My job here is to put parameters on Egypt’s position on Gaza,” Abdel Moneim Saeed, a leading member and political intellectual with the ruling National Democratic Party, said at the press conference held at the information ministry. “Egypt has succeeded in the past two weeks of attempting to build a regional and international coalition of a set of ideas.

“We are talking with both sides about how to implement the Egyptian initiative. Egypt will continue its efforts for the Palestinians, Israelis and mostly for Egyptians,” Mr Saeed said, stressing that a ceasefire was needed because “there is no military solution”.

A Franco-Egyptian proposal last week called for a ceasefire for a specified period, opening Gaza’s border crossings, preventing arms smuggling into the territory and inviting Palestinian factions to reconciliation talks. A UN Security Council resolution passed on Thursday called for a ceasefire.

Israel and Hamas have rejected both proposals.

“There is no way Israel will be able to suppress the Palestinian people and no way Hamas would be able, with few rockets, to overcome the severe imbalance of power and eject Israelis from the land of Palestine,” Mr Saeed stressed.

He said “the original sin is the continuation of occupation of the land” and emphasised that Egypt would continue to work “with persistence and resilience with both sides”.
On Saturday, in a nod to its traditional diplomatic role, Egypt hosted talks between the Egyptian and Palestinian presidents, as well as between two Hamas groups who met with Egypt’s intelligence chief.

Amos Gilad, the head of the Israeli defence ministry’s Diplomatic-Security Bureau, is also expected in Egypt again today after meeting with Egyptian officials last week.
Still, the officials stressed that any dialogue with Hamas does not signal a political opening with the group.

“Egypt is not expressing a love affair with Hamas but for Gaza and the Palestinians’ sake,” Mr Saeed stressed.

Egypt has never welcomed Hamas, which came to power in Gaza via elections in 2006. Egypt is battling the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest Islamic opposition group, which is the inspiration of all Islamist movements in the region.

Harsh criticism of the regime over the past two weeks has centred on Egypt’s reticence to open its border with Gaza, prompting some extreme elements to accuse it of collusion with Israel.

Israel, meanwhile, has criticised it for not shuttering tunnels from Egypt into Gaza used to smuggle in supplies and possibly arms.

“Egypt has never, ever participated or co-operated in the siege of Gaza,” said Mohammed Bassiouny, the former Egyptian ambassador to Israel, at the press conference. “There is only one crossing point between Egypt and Gaza; however, there are six crossing points between Israel and Gaza. “Be sure we’re against the tunnels because everyone is keen on security and sovereignty at its border.”

Egypt, he said, got US$25 million (Dh92m) last year from the United States to detect the tunnels.

Israeli officials have openly criticised Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, for not doing enough to close or destroy the tunnels.

But the last three terrorist attacks that struck Sinai were carried out by terrorists trained in Gaza and who came to Egypt via the tunnels, Mr Saeed said, “so the threat goes both ways”.

Under a 2005 deal, the Rafah crossing with Gaza can only be opened to normal traffic if EU observers and Palestinian Authority forces are at the border. But Hamas ousted forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, from the Gaza Strip in June 2007 and the EU monitors subsequently left.

Since then, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza and Egypt, under international pressure, reinforced it.

Mr Saeed defended Egypt’s brief opening of the crossing to allow humanitarian supplies and injured to cross through, despite violating the agreement preventing it from keeping the border open. Egypt is not party to the 2005 border agreement, so actually is not breaching it by letting humanitarian aid, he said.

About 290 wounded have crossed into Egypt via the Rafah border crossing along with 144 of their relatives and are being treated in hospitals. There are up to 2,000 beds for the Palestinian wounded, said Nasser Rasmy, an assistant to the Egyptian health minister.

He added that about 175 volunteer doctors were at the border eager “help the exhausted doctors in Gaza”, but “they are not passing because of the vulnerability of the security situation in Gaza.”


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