Israel vs. Hamas Egypt in Quandary as Gaza Raids Divide the Muslim World

Israel's ongoing bombing of the Gaza Strip has put Egypt in a delicate position. The government in Cairo has no interest in antagonizing Israel, but pressure is growing to allow Palestinians into the country. The attacks have split the Muslim world.

By in Cairo

The demonstrators in front of Cairo's Al Azhar University, one of Sunni Islam's most esteemed institutes of learning, were screaming, the anger clearly etched on their faces. "Open the borders to Gaza! Break off relations with Israel!" they yelled on Monday. There were about 500 of them, mostly young, but some older ones as well wearing the full beards of devout Muslims. They faced off against police armed with batons and riot shields.

Demonstrators face off against riot police in Cairo on Monday.

Demonstrators face off against riot police in Cairo on Monday.

Marchers waved the Palestinian flag as they demanded to be allowed into the mosque. They were there to hear Islamic leaders make a call for holy war against the "Zionist entity," the name used for Israel among hard-line Islamists.

The protests were called by the radical Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and by the Egyptian opposition. Speaking on Lebanese television, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah told his followers that Egypt's leaders are "partners in the crime, partners in the murder" if they don't open up the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt at Rafah and offer assistance to the Palestinian people. On Tuesday, protesters in Yemen attacked and raided the Egyptian consulate.

Egypt is divided, and so is much of the Arab and Muslim world. A proper response to the Israeli air raids on the Gaza Strip -- launched in response to rockets being fired into Israel from Hamas militants based in the Gaza Strip -- has proven elusive.

Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia officially support the Fatah Party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In the summer of 2007, however, the radicals from Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah. Syria and Iran have thrown their support behind Hamas -- and they have both accused Egypt of being Israel's accomplices. Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon charge Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak with being a traitor.

The outrage has been fueled by the Arab and Iranian media. Some even reported that Mubarak was personally informed of the impending Gaza offensive by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and neglected to pass the information along to the Palestinians.

The accusation is one that seems out of place. Last week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit warned the Palestinians in a press conference "not to do anything that the enemies of peace … could exploit, such as the firing of rockets, which (gives) the Israeli side an excuse for aggressive actions against the Palestinian people."

"Egyptians' hearts are smouldering," wrote Adel Hammouda, editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper El Fagr ("The Dawn"). "Of course we all have the deepest sympathy for the women and children in the Gaza Strip, shut in as they are and at the mercy of Israeli bombs."

Hammouda also argues that the Egyptian government along with the Red Crescent and even private volunteers should try to offer humanitarian assistance. But breaking off relations with Israel, he argues, would be the wrong move. Anything that might risk a war with Egypt's heavily armed neighbors would be foolhardy, he says. "We should not play into the hands of the extremists."

Such sober, moderate analysis, though, has been in short supply. Even the tempers in Egypt's government have begun fraying as extremist volleys continue to be fired at Cairo from elsewhere in the Muslim world. Foreign Minister Gheit went on television on Monday evening to directly counter accusations that Egypt was somehow assisting Israel in its assault on the Gaza Strip. He lashed out at Nasrallah, saying "you are a man who used to enjoy respect, but you have insulted the Egyptian people." Gheit also blasted Iran.

He has reason, perhaps, to be short-tempered. More and more voices in Egypt are calling for the border to the Gaza Strip to be opened. Left-leaning commentator Ibrahim Issa demanded in the weekly Ad Dastur that Palestinians be allowed to cross the border into safety in Egypt. The radical Muslim Brotherhood, which is close with both the Taliban in Afghanistan and the violent nationalists in Algeria -- and which has 88 seats in the Egyptian parliament -- likewise demanded that Egypt open the border and "declare war on Israel."

The religious-conservative paper Al Ahrar also vented its anger at the government in Cairo. Under a picture depicting Gheit meeting with his Israeli counterpart Livni, the caption read "meeting of the villains."

The Palestinians, though, are not making things any easier for their anti-Cairo supporters, as the same paper reported on Monday. The Egyptian health minister led a group of doctors to the border with the Gaza Strip in the hopes of helping those in need cross into Egypt for free treatment in Egyptian hospitals. But there were no patients; Hamas elected not to allow the sick and wounded out of Gaza. "Egypt should allow Palestinians into their country without conditions," said the Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniya. "Only the sick and wounded -- I won't allow that."

On Monday evening, however, officials temporarily opened the border crossing to allow a few dozen wounded Palestinians in to seek treatment at Egyptian hospitals, and trucks carrying humanitarian aid and medicine -- some from Qatar and Libya -- were allowed to transfer their cargo to Palestinian trucks at the crossing.

As the violence in Gaza continues, with 360 Palestinians reportedly having lost their lives along and four Israelis killed by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, the frustration and anger among Muslims continues to grow. And spread. The Saudi Arabian television station Al Huda on Monday night once again broadcast a talk show focusing on the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip. A London-based Islamist was patched in, and he called on all Muslims -- particularly those living in Europe -- to make it clear to non-Muslims that they should not throw their support behind Israel.

"We Muslims once ruled the world," the speaker intoned, "and we warn the West, which supports Israeli crimes, that we will one day re-establish the Islam Caliphate." A commentator briefly interrupted to insist that the Palestinian conflict can only be solved through peace negotiations. But the speaker was unimpressed. "Hamas has finally picked up their weapons," he said. "Should we have to, we will set the entire world aflame."


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