As soon as Israel attacked Gaza in its “Operation Pillar of Defence”, it was clear the context in which its war was launched was very different from “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-09.
The shift in regional context is largely due to the Arab Spring, which has shaken the Middle East. The most concerning development from Israel's point of view was Egypt's January 25 revolution, which overthrew US- and Israel-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak last year.
A strong supporter of Israel, Mubarak helped maintain the siege of Gaza by keeping the Rafah border crossing closed, signed many commercial deals with Israel and upheld the peace treaty first signed in 1979 by former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. This treaty has been to the detriment of the Palestinians.
One of Israel's fears, and the hopes of those who support Palestinian rights, was that the revolution would overturn these relations. The reality, though, is indicative of the gains and the limitations of the revolution so far.
The popularly elected president, Mohammed Morsi, is am ember of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group traditionally hostile towards Israel and close to Hamas. But Egypt receives US$1.3 billion worth of military funding each year from the US government. Any fundamental upsetting of the status quo could see the money withdrawn, antagonising the still-powerful Egyptian military.
This is the tightrope the Muslim Brotherhood has been walking. It has sought to play both sides.
It has used fiery rhetoric against Israel's attacks. The New York Times reported Morsi as saying on November 15: “The Egyptian people, the Egyptian leadership, Egyptian government and all of Egypt is standing with all its resources to stop this assault, to prevent the killing and bloodshed of the Palestinians … Israelis must recognise that we do not accept this aggression.”
Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Qandil went to Gaza on a “solidarity” trip during the height of the war.
These are not unimportant changes from the Mubarak era, yet during the war the essentials of Mubarak's policies remained. In some cases, Egypt's role was even worse.
The Rafah border has remained mostly closed. In the months leading up to the latest conflict, Egypt closed tunnels crucial to bringing supplies and weapons into Gaza. Also, as the carnage in Gaza grew, the peace treaty was not raised, nor were any commercial contracts threatened.
However, unlike Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood's ties to Hamas and support for Palestine meant it put a great deal of effort into securing a treaty. Its pressure was a factor in halting Israel's assault, which ended after eight days. Operation Cast lead had continued for 22 days.
The terms of the latest ceasefire, achieved on November 21, were also more favourable on the surface than the ceasefire signed in 2009. Provisions were included to open the crossings into Gaza, so people and goods could begin to flow. It also made Egypt the adjuctator of who breaks the terms of the ceasefire rather than the US or United Nations.
The Guardian said that day: “Israeli negotiators had two demands: that the ceasefire last for a stated minimal period of time and that a no-fire zone be established on the border. Neither are in the agreement.”
These are victories, unachievable without Egypt's intervention.
However, the status quo of Israel giving itself the right to attack Gaza whenever it suits them remains, as does the occupation of the West Bank. Egypt will be faced with the question again about what to do when Israel's launches its next murderous assault.
This is the point where it will become much harder for the Muslim Brotherhood, because the future of Palestine and Egypt's revolution are closely tied. Ultimately, the only way to secure a future for Palestine is to take Israel's power on head on. This would mean cancelling the peace treaty that disadvantages Palestinians and ending practices such as exporting gas to Israel.
With the Morsi government unwilling to act decisively, grassroots Egyptian activists stepped in. The New Statesman reported on the actions of someof them: “It was a mad mission. On the bloodiest night of the latest Israeli onslaught on Gaza, over 550 Egyptian revolutionaries in 11 buses drove over the border to the besieged territory.
“The unprecedented expression of solidarity challenged their country's siege on the strip,”
Buses were let through, unlike in 2009 where a similar convoy was chased away by military authorities.
Those types of actions show the potential future. The space is now greater in Egypt to organise for and demand actions that will help lead to the liberation of Palestine. How that space is used will be the crucial question for the future both of Egypt and Palestine.