The Middle East’s emerging political forces mobilized in Cairo and in Gaza on Saturday to press for an end to the escalating conflict between Hamas and Israel.
In Gaza, hostilities continued, with Israeli airstrikes pounding the coastal strip for a fourth straight day and Palestinian militants firing dozens of rockets at Israel, including another two aimed at Tel Aviv. The toll reached 40 Palestinians dead and 345 wounded, and three Israelis dead.
There were hints that the pace of combat operations could be slowing, perhaps as a result of the Cairo-led efforts to mediate a cease-fire. In Gaza, the ferocity and number of airstrikes seemed to dip. Hamas said government institutions in Gaza would resume regular work hours on Sunday, a surprising decision given that Israel has targeted some government offices in the past 24 hours.
It was unclear whether the lull was a sign that hostilities could be winding down, or merely a periodic operational pause. Israeli ground forces, including 16,000 reservists called up in the past 48 hours, remained massed on Gaza’s borders awaiting orders from Israel’s political leadership.
“There are intense efforts underway through the contact channels with the Palestinian and Israeli sides, so far there are some indications that there’s a possibility for a cease-fire,” said Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi during a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who began a two-day official visit to Egypt on Saturday.
“Until now we do not have solid guarantees, but what I want to signal and affirm is that war and aggression in this manner and the blockade of Gaza, all of this cannot achieve peace and stability for the people of the region,” Mr. Morsi added while warning Israel against proceeding with any ground offensive because it would inflame a region transformed by the regime changes ushered in by the so-called Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere nearly two years ago.
“The people and the leaders of the region are different from before,” Mr. Morsi said.
For his part, Mr. Erdogan said he spoke Friday by telephone with U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin to press for “an urgent cease-fire in Gaza.”
Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Rafik Abdesslem, meanwhile, entered the Gaza Strip on Saturday, following in the footsteps of Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil on Friday.
Where the conflict goes from here seemed to hinge largely on the deliberations in Cairo, where the leaders of Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt huddled in a bid to end the most ferocious fighting between Israel and Palestinians in four years.
As Cairo ramped up efforts to restore calm, Egyptian Intelligence Minister Rafat Shehata met with the head of Hamas’s politburo in exile, Khaled Meshaal, who arrived in Cairo on Saturday, and his deputy Moussa Abu Marzuk. As of Saturday evening, both sets of meetings were continuing, and it was unclear what, if anything, had been agreed.
Egypt hopes to broker a cease-fire before Israel launches a ground invasion, which would raise the stakes for all involved—increasing the death toll for both Israelis and Palestinians, and ramping up popular pressure on the region’s new Islamist democratic governments, particularly Egypt, to take a more defiant stance against Israel.
The fighting, the first substantial Israeli-Palestinian flare-up since a wave of pro-democracy uprisings swept the region, is a test of how an emerging bloc of like-minded Islamist leaders, born of the Arab Spring, will tackle the region’s most intractable conflict.
Turkey’s Mr. Erdogan arrived in Cairo on Saturday for a previously planned visit along with 10 of his ministers and a delegation of 350 Turkish businessmen and investors. After meeting with Egyptian President Morsi, he hurried to Cairo’s Four Seasons Hotel for a meeting with Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. The Qatari ruler also held talks with Mr. Morsi
The talks focused on a way to end the latest round of hostilities in Gaza and to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian factions, according to an Egyptian presidential spokesman.
Back-to-back uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011 ousted two U.S.- allied dictators who had ruled their countries with iron fists for decades. Democratic elections ushered Islamist parties into power.
Those newly empowered parties look to Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Islamist party in Turkey as a model for how to mesh modern democracy with conservative Islam, and how to assert their interests on the international scene independent of their Western allies. Qatar’s emir, meanwhile, has strengthened the city-state’s regional heft by backing the region’s emerging Islamist democratic governments.
Tackling the situation in Gaza is perhaps the most daunting test yet for this emerging alliance. Egypt, with its population of 83 million, historic importance in the region and current Islamist government, is at the center of this strategy.
“From a strategic standpoint, cooperation between these two big countries, Egypt and Turkey, is indispensable for Middle East revival and stability,” Mr. Erdogan told Egyptian daily Shorouk in an interview published Saturday.
Underscoring the commitment to this new regional vision, Mr. Erdogan said during his press conference with Mr. Morsi later Saturday that Turkey would extend to Egypt a $1 billion loan on preferential terms, sign 27 bilateral agreements and strive to boost the value of trade between the two countries fivefold from the current $1 billion over the next year.
For its part, Qatar boldly pushed to set the tone at an emergency meeting of the Arab League, the 22-member pan-Arab organization, in Cairo on Saturday to discuss the situation in Gaza.
Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said all Arab states should back Egypt’s efforts and concentrate on practical steps to help Palestinians such as providing financial and humanitarian aid and lifting the blockade of Gaza without the usual condemnation and empty threats.
“Our meetings have become a waste of public funds and time,” Mr. Thani said.
“We should not make them hope for what we can’t deliver,” he said, referring to Palestinians.
.Neither Hamas nor Israel have given any public indication they are close to agreeing to a cease-fire. Israel has continued to amass troops and armor on the Gaza border. It has called up 16,000 reservists so far, and the government has authorized the military to expand that number to 75,000 if need be.
There is deep mistrust between the longtime foes. In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Saturday that Hamas was unlikely to believe any Israeli cease-fire pledges even if they came. Hamas and Egypt both say that Israel indicated it was close to agreeing to a cease-fire on Monday—two days before launching the current offensive. Israel peace mediator Gershon Baskin, who helped negotiate the deal that led to the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit last year, said publicly Thursday that the two sides were close to a cease-fire agreement when the Israeli offensive started.
“The Israelis claim that they are ready to make a truce,” Mr. Zuhri said. “The last truce they claimed is a good example: They are liars. They targeted Abu Muhammad el-Jabari as soon as they agreed with the Egyptian side on the truce. Talking about a truce is another Israeli trap. Their target is to get more time for targeting the Palestinian resistance.”
Israeli officials said those cease-fire talks were being conducted by third parties, independent of the government. While officials were aware of the talks, the government wasn’t involved and never agreed to anything.
Israel on Saturday pummeled political targets throughout the Gaza Strip, including the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
Israeli’s top military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, said Israeli bombs had also struck Hamas’s police headquarters and its homeland-security building in Gaza City, the main city in the coastal Palestinian enclave. It also targeted a number of commanders from Hamas’s armed wing.
Israel’s military said in a statement that in the early hours of Saturday it had struck “over 200 targets” including “120 underground rocket launchers and more than 20 smuggling tunnels” on the coastal enclave’s border with Israel. But the pace of attacks largely tapered off as the day wore on.
The Israeli government is “continuing to amass forces for a possible ground invasion,” the military statement said.
The Wall Street Journal