Egypt Islamist leader cautious on Gaza crisis

Associated Press Modified: November 15, 2012 at 3:17 pm •  Published: November 15, 2012
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On Thursday, Egypt's ambassador to Israel, Atef Sayid al-Ahl, arrived back in Cairo, saying he was back for consultations with Morsi and that the embassy in Tel Aviv was still operating.

The dispatch to Gaza of Prime Minister Hesham Kandil was a notable symbolic gesture, the highest level Egyptian official to visit Gaza since Hamas took over the territory in 2007. But it remained largely symbolic, given that the prime minister's authority is dwarfed by the president's overwhelming powers.

Kandil was ordered to head to Gaza on Friday, heading a delegation to meet the "urgent humanitarian needs" of Gaza residents, according to state TV. The move is likely to be criticized by his opponents contending the president is showing more concern for Palestinians living under the rule of his Hamas allies than toward the millions of Egyptians hit hard by the nation's worst economic crisis in years.

In effect, Hamas is the Palestinian chapter of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest political group. Since entering office in June, Morsi has received Hamas leaders in Cairo and has repeatedly vowed to stand by the Palestinians in the face of Israel. That is a significant break from the policy of Mubarak, who helped Israel in blockading Gaza after Hamas took over the territory in 2007. Morsi has largely opened Egypt's border crossing with Gaza for Palestinians to enter and exit.

Though the Brotherhood in the past called for the annulment of the 1979 peace deal with Israel, Morsi has promised to abide by the accord.

With Morsi taking a quieter tone, his Brotherhood has stepped in to trumpet the harsh rhetoric on Israel. At an Islamist conference in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, the Brotherhood's spiritual leader Mohammed Badie blasted Israel as the "project of the devil" and boasted that the first "martyr" in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 came from the Brotherhood.

Hamas leaders on Thursday lavishly praised Morsi's response to the Israeli offensive.

"The popularly elected Egyptian leadership is giving everyone a lesson. The Egyptian leadership has shown that it is taking a new course and adopting a new vision. The era when Israel did what it pleased is over," the group's top leader Khaled Mashaal told delegates in an Islamist conference held in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

In a televised address, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh said that as Gaza was being hit, "the Arab and Muslim cities were all in silence, but we found a quick response from the Egyptian leadership, a reflection of its new leadership. ... Leaders can no longer sit on their hands while seeing our people preyed on."

Egypt governed the Gaza Strip between 1948 and 1967, when Israel seized the territory along with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Israel returned the Sinai under the two countries' 1979 peace deal. In recent years, Egypt has negotiated a series of truces between Hamas and Israel, chiefly out of the contention that turmoil in Gaza could easily spill over into Sinai and maybe the nation's hinterland.

Distrust was deep between Hamas leaders and Mubarak's regime — and it remains strong among some in Egypt, particularly among the security forces. Morsi's critics claim that Hamas wants to hold sway over Sinai to give its fighters a much bigger stage from which to attack Israel. They also say Gaza militants are fueling the near lawlessness in northern Sinai, where Islamic militants have carried out attacks on Israel and on Egyptian security forces.

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