Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has hosted United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Cairo where they discussed the ongoing crisis in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel.
El-Sisi reiterated on Sunday his country’s stance that Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip had “exceeded the right to self-defence” and amounted to collective punishment.
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He added that Egypt’s priority was to end the violence and provide humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians trapped in Gaza.
Small moves in Sinai, demonstrations in Cairo
Egypt has opened up its airport in El Arish to receive international assistance for the besieged people of Gaza, with planes arriving from Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, among others.
Combined with donations from Egypt, they have been loaded into more than 100 trucks, which are lined up in the northern Sinai Peninsula and ready to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing. A blood donation campaign was initiated by the Egyptian government, with donation centres set up in all governorates.
After negotiations with the US and others, Egypt agreed to an exchange, whereby it would allow the exit of dual-national Palestinians trapped in the blockaded enclave into Egyptian territory in return for Israel allowing safe passage for the humanitarian aid.
However, no movement on either side of the border has taken place as on Saturday, Egypt was informed that Israel had rejected safe passage for the aid trucks.
In response, Egypt refused entry to its territory for Gaza’s dual-nationality citizens, making it clear that their exit from the Strip was contingent on Israel allowing the passage of the aid convoy into the enclave.
The exact number of Palestinian dual-nationals stuck in Rafah is not clear. According to the US government, between 500 and 600 US passport holders are thought to be trapped in Gaza.
French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna will be visiting Cairo on Monday and is expected to discuss allowing dual nationals to leave Gaza as there are several French citizens there.
As the impasse wore on, images on social media appeared to show Egyptian workers erecting concrete blocks along their side of the Rafah crossing on Saturday.
Observers have noted Egyptian wariness about the Rafah crossing and on Tuesday, news outlet Al Ahram Online quoted knowledgeable sources as saying there were plans by “some parties and forces” to forcibly displace Palestinians from their land and resettle them in Sinai.
The Palestinian cause has long enjoyed widespread support in Egypt, leading to official nervousness over the reaction and making it into the content of the sermons after Friday prayers.
According to the independent media outlet Mada Masr, the government had feared “chaos” that may have resulted from overzealous Friday sermons, especially from Al-Azhar, Egypt’s theological authority and the most famous mosque in Cairo.
Beyond Friday prayers, Egypt witnessed a number of rallies in support of Palestine throughout the week. A conference is expected to be held tomorrow by the Egyptian journalists’ syndicate to launch a weekly report on crimes committed by the Israeli army against journalists, with 10 Palestinian and one Lebanese journalist killed so far.
The lawyers’ syndicate has a support rally planned for Monday as well.
Egypt’s national security ‘red line’
For some observers, this was evidence of Egyptian concerns over a significant influx of Palestinian refugees into Sinai. However, according to local sources, Egypt was not so much concerned with blocking traffic but securing the border, which had been damaged by recent Israeli bombings.
In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that “the crossing point on the Palestinian side is inoperable due to recent bombings” and that Egypt would evacuate the foreign citizens “in coordination with the embassies” concerned, once the infrastructure is repaired.
The country is also awaiting an agreement with Israel to transport the humanitarian aid.
However, regardless of Egypt’s intent, as more Palestinians move towards the Egyptian border, the concentration of people near the Rafah crossing may lead to increased tensions.
There have been calls from within Egypt for the government to open the crossing with Gaza after Israel’s order for more than a million of its inhabitants to move to the south near the border. But Cairo has been cautious.
“Egypt’s national security is my first responsibility and I will not neglect it under any circumstances,” el-Sisi said on Wednesday.
El-Sisi, who views himself as the natural mediator, has publicly doubted that, should any mass displacement to Egypt take place, the hundreds of thousands of ejected Palestinians would be allowed to return, as has been the case in previous conflicts.
Egypt’s National Security Council echoed these sentiments in its meeting on Sunday, where it reaffirmed that its priority is Egypt’s national security, saying anything that affected it is a “red line”.
The government has also clearly stated its “rejection and denunciation of any displacement or liquidation of the Palestinian cause at the expense of neighbouring countries” and proposed a regional summit on “the development and future of the Palestinian cause”.