Leaders and top officials from more than a dozen countries have gathered in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, for a conference to discuss ways to “de-escalate” the Israel-Hamas war amid growing fears of a wider Middle East conflict.
Dubbed the Cairo Summit for Peace, representatives from countries including Jordan, France, Germany, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, the United States, Qatar and South Africa are attending the one-day meeting on Saturday, together with United Nations and European Union officials.
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In his opening remarks, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi invited leaders to come to an agreement for a road map to end the “humanitarian catastrophe” in the Gaza Strip and revive a path to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The plan’s goals included the delivery of aid to Gaza and agreeing to a ceasefire, followed by negotiations leading to a two-state solution, he said.
“All civilian lives matter,” Jordan’s King Abdullah said, addressing the summit. “The relentless bombing campaign under way in Gaza as we speak is cruel and unconscionable on every level. It is collective punishment of a besieged and helpless people. It is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. It is a war crime.”
“Anywhere else, attacking civilian infrastructure and deliberately starving an entire population of food, water, electricity and basic necessities would be condemned. Accountability would be enforced … but not in Gaza,” he added.
‘Israel not represented’
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attended the summit and asked for humanitarian corridors to be opened. He also said Palestinians would not leave. “We will remain on our land.”
The absence of any representative from the Israeli side, and any senior US official, has dampened expectations for what the summit can achieve.
Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor James Bays said that while it is good for these countries to propose a road map out of this crisis, “Is Israel going to listen to that road map?”
“Israel is not represented. It’s Israeli generals and the Israeli prime minister and the Israeli war cabinet who have the decisions on what to do militarily, and you see – as the speeches have been going on – fresh bombardment of Gaza [is taking place],” Bays noted.
The summit takes place as Israel readies a ground assault on Gaza, after weeks of aerial attacks following the October 7 attack by Hamas that killed 1,400 people in Israel. More than 4,200 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s counteroffensive, amid a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Egypt called for the international conference last week to discuss the “developments and future of the Palestinian cause”. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the meeting would seek an “international concurrence” on the need for de-escalation and humanitarian aid deliveries to the Gaza Strip.
The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, the one access point not controlled by Israel, had been closed for nearly two weeks amid Israel’s bombardment of the Strip but opened on Saturday to allow only 20 aid trucks in.
Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, is worried about a mass exodus of Palestinians into its territory.
President el-Sisi said on Wednesday that Egyptians in their millions would oppose any forced displacement of Palestinians into Sinai, adding that any such move would turn the Egyptian peninsula into a base for attacks against Israel.
Egypt’s position reflects Arab fears that Palestinians could again flee or be forced from their homes en masse, as they were during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.
Arab countries have voiced anger at Israel’s unprecedented bombardment and siege of Gaza, home to 2.3 million people.
Marc Owen Jones, assistant professor of Middle East studies at Doha’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University, said there was “a large amount of political grandstanding” in the opening statements of Arab leaders at the Cairo summit as they reaffirmed their commitment to a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“A lot of this is about the domestic legitimacy of these leaders, particularly el-Sisi who is worried about the population becoming restive if they don’t see him doing anything about the Palestinian cause,” he told Al Jazeera.
Despite the “showboating”, Owen Jones said the summit’s impact on developments on the ground would be limited.
He said “the realistic practical outcomes” would be “at the most a ceasefire, and at the least, a little more humanitarian aid going through”.
“I can’t see, without Israel at the table, that there’s going to be a sufficient degree of political clout here to stop Israel’s bombing of Gaza.”
Call for Israel ‘restraint’
Speaking at the summit, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for “a humanitarian ceasefire now”. He emphasised three key things to help de-escalate the crisis: “Immediate, unrestricted and sustained humanitarian aid for besieged civilians in Gaza. Immediate unconditional release of all hostages in Gaza. And immediate and dedicated efforts to prevent the spread of the violence, which is increasing the risk of spillover.”
Clashes on Israel’s border with Lebanon and attempted attacks by Iranian-backed forces elsewhere have fuelled fears of a spillover, particularly if a ground offensive proves bloody, while growing anti-Islamic and anti-Jewish harassment around the world has raised security concerns in many countries.
European countries have struggled to settle on a united approach to the crisis, beyond condemning Hamas’s attack, after days of confusion and mixed messaging.
At the summit, the UK’s foreign secretary James Cleverly said he has “called for discipline and professionalism and restraint from the Israeli military” and that he still believed in the “power of diplomacy and to secure a future where Israelis and Palestinians live in peace”.