Egyptian delegation to visit besieged Gaza Strip

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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi ordered his prime minister and top security officials to visit the Gaza Strip on Friday to show support for Palestinian residents in the face of what he called an “unacceptable” bombing campaign by Israel.

State television said Thursday that Prime Minister Hesham Kandil would lead the high-level mission aimed at meeting the “urgent needs” of Gaza residents. News agencies reported that the team would also include Maj. Gen. Mohamed Raafat Shehata, Egypt’s intelligence chief, as well as the health minister and top Morsi aides. During their one-day visit, the Egyptians plan to meet with top Gaza officials and “show solidarity with the Palestinian people,” a cabinet officer told Reuters news agency.

The announcement of the visit came after Morsi on Thursday condemned Israel’s ongoing military offensive against the Gaza Strip, an assault that Israeli officials said was triggered by Palestinian rocket attacks from the enclave. Morsi, an Islamist who took office in June as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, has come under growing pressure at home to take tough action against the Jewish state.

“The Israelis must realize that this aggression is unacceptable and would only lead to instability in the region,” Morsi said in televised remarks Thursday afternoon.

Egyptian political parties, activist groups and media spoke out unanimously against Israel on Thursday, after a night of Israeli airstrikes on Islamist militant targets in the Gaza Strip.

Cairo withdrew its ambassador to Tel Aviv on Wednesday night and called for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the situation in Gaza. Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr also spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton by phone, urging Washington to intervene to halt Israeli “aggression,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Morsi told the nation Thursday that he had called on the Cairo-based Arab League to convene an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers. He said he had also telephoned President Obama, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to call for international intervention in the conflict.

“I called the U.S. President Obama shortly before dawn today, and we discussed ways of achieving calm and ending the bloodshed,” Morsi said in his televised address. “I explained to him the role of Egypt in the region and our interest in maintaining our ties with the United States, but I said we reject such aggression.”

Leading politicians and activists, including members of Morsi’s own Muslim Brotherhood, called on the president to sever ties with the Jewish state and open Egypt’s Rafah border crossing with Gaza.

“We called on Morsi to cut off all diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel and to urge all Arab and Muslim countries to do the same,” said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a high-ranking leader of the Brotherhood.

The government’s decision to withdraw Egypt’s ambassador was insufficient, Ghozlan and other political leaders said.

The Muslim Brotherhood, in which Morsi was a leading figure, has close ties to Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamist organization that controls the Gaza Strip. Analysts said Egypt’s newly elected leadership was unlikely to be as accepting of Israel’s actions against Gaza as the country’s ousted autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, had been.

Animosity toward Israel runs high in Egypt, and many Egyptians saw the Mubarak regime as a willing puppet of U.S. and Israeli policy in the region. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and state officials pledged Wednesday night that Egyptian policy had entered a new era.

Newspaper headlines on Thursday referred to Palestinians slain in Wednesday’s airstrikes as “martyrs” and warned of imminent regional war that could engulf Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry updated its Facebook page with a picture of the Palestinian flag.

Mubarak was widely criticized for Egypt’s relative silence during Israel’s 2008 offensive on Gaza, when Egypt shut its border with the Strip and effectively blocked the departure of injured people and refugees, while keeping journalists and aid from getting in.

Morsi’s government and the Muslim Brotherhood vowed during last summer’s presidential campaign to do things differently, warning that Egypt would no longer acquiesce to U.S. and Israeli interests.

The Cairo government, already embroiled in its own domestic political conflict over a new constitution and a tanking economy, is disinclined to go to war over Gaza, analysts said. But the new political order could radically alter Egypt’s 30-year-old peace with the Jewish state.

“The situation has changed in Egypt. And all is not going to be normal on the eastern front,” said Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

Egypt’s post-Mubarak leadership is now accountable to its constituents, Kazziha said. And popular support for stronger action to support the Palestinians against Israel would likely drive Morsi’s government to reconsider the bilateral peace deal between Egypt and Israel, Kazziha and politicians said.

Although Egypt is unlikely to attack Israel, it can cease cooperation with the Jewish state on security along their shared border, according to analysts and politicians, including members of the Salafist Nour party.

Egypt “can make real nuisance out of Gaza for the Israelis, without getting implicated — in the same way the Syrians made southern Lebanon a big nuisance without getting directly involved,” Kazziha said. “You arm people, you open the borders, you offer support.”

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