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Egyptian Ambassador Offers Views on Gaza Violence

December 30, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Israel continued airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza Tuesday, indicating its intention to launch further attacks in the coming days. Egyptian ambassador Sameh Shoukry discusses his country's role in the crisis and his government's controversial decision to keep Egypt's border posts with Gaza closed.

RAY SUAREZ: We now go to a three-part look at the war in Gaza. We start with a report from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Living in the rubble, so much destruction now, and the people of Gaza just trying to survive. Sixteen bombs have destroyed five government ministries and many neighboring buildings. A Hamas sports center was hit overnight and the headquarters of the Hamas armed brigades.

Empty pumps. It’s nearly two weeks since petrol was brought in through the tunnels from Egypt. And this morning, the power station was turned off because it had no fuel.

People queued for bread, but today Hamas told Channel 4 News that it will hold out.

TAHER NOONOO, Hamas government spokesman: We didn’t speak about cease-fire now. We call all the leaders in the international community and the Arab leaders to first stop this aggression, and then we can speak about cease-fire, about truce, about anything later. But the first thing, we want to stop this aggression against our people.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Israeli troops are massing at the Gaza border. This is the moment when the Israeli government may call a temporary cease-fire or start a ground war.

The Israelis are soon going to run out of targets they can hit from the air, but it’s a serious decision to send in the ground forces. Hamas says it’s laid land mines, and there are men waiting to fight in Gaza.

Hanging across these young soldiers, the shadow of the badly fought war in Lebanon two years ago. Its conduct was criticized by the Winograd committee whose members hope the Israeli government will not repeat those mistakes in this operation, known as Cast Lead.

YEHEZKEL DROR, Winograd Committee: The air force was not decisive in Lebanon. Too it cannot be decisive in Cast Lead campaign, unless you go and use it as a bargaining chip. If you want to hit Hamas harder, you have to move in its land forces, which is a serious decision.

LINDSEY HILSUM: At Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, ambulances discharged casualties all the time. The corridors are filled with those who’d be regarded as seriously injured anywhere else.

Power comes and goes. The windows are kept open so the bombing doesn’t shatter them. Flies get into the intensive care unit.

Eighteen-year-old Islam Usruf was walking in the street when the first bombs hit. He has a serious head injury which can’t be treated in Gaza.

DR. KAMAL ABU ABADA, Shifa Hospital: If he stayed more than one day or two, he may die or have complications.

LINDSEY HILSUM: He’s taken to the ambulance to be transferred over the border to Egypt and hopefully Saudi Arabia, but his family doubts he’ll survive.

HAMADA USRUF: I know that. That’s my brother. He won’t come back alive.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Maybe he’ll make it; maybe he won’t. Another casualty of a war which becomes more cruel by the day.

Egypt closes border with Gaza

RAY SUAREZ: Now, we turn to Gaza's eastern neighbor, Egypt. Excuse me, their neighbor to the south and west, Egypt. We had planned an interview with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack. He canceled shortly before we went on the air.

The Gaza fighting also has stirred a crisis for Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak has reaffirmed his decision to keep closed Egypt's border posts with Gaza. That decision has provoked anger and street demonstrations from other Arab and Middle Eastern nations, including Iran.

Tomorrow, Egypt plays host to an Arab League meeting on Gaza. Here to discuss the Egyptian role in the Gaza crisis is that country's ambassador to Washington, Sameh Shoukry.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome.

SAMEH SHOUKRY, ambassador, Egypt: Thank you for having me.

RAY SUAREZ: Why did your country close the border stations with Gaza?

SAMEH SHOUKRY: I think this is an issue which needs some clarification. We have closed the border today because of anticipation for heavy bombardment on the Philadelphi border, segment of the joint border, and we were afraid of civilian casualties.

What the president has declared today was that the border would not be opened on a permanent basis until the conditions that were agreed to in 2005 were in place.

But we will certainly continue to open the border on an emergency basis to receive further casualties and to be able to receive those casualties and give them medical treatment in Egypt.

RAY SUAREZ: Is Egypt trying to avoid having civilians flee into Egypt to avoid the fighting?

SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, certainly not. The status of the territories, as you know, is still under occupation, and Israel, as the occupying power, must continue to shoulder the opportunity for the well-being of the population of Gaza.

And we will continue to do everything possible to provide the assistance necessary to that population, but within the framework, the legal framework of the conditions ascertaining to the border.

Egypt's role in the crisis

RAY SUAREZ: Arab states are demanding that you open that border. In many Arab capitals, there's been that call. And the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, made that call in Lebanon.

Where does this leave Egypt in its relationships with other countries in the region?

SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, I think Egypt's role in the Middle East crisis is well-known, and we will continue to play a very active and dynamic role, in terms of trying to alleviate the problems and the conditions that are now underway in Gaza.

But at the same time, I think we have to be clear that the issue of the crossing is one of a legal nature and one which Israel must contend with because of its status.

But we will continue to support the Palestinian people and those of Gaza in every way possible. And as I mentioned, I think it's disingenuous to say that Egypt has closed the border. On the contrary, the border remains open on an emergency basis to receive those wounded and those needing treatment.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, your president, Hosni Mubarak, called on the Palestinians to end their divisions. Is it Egypt's position that the divisions between Palestinians have made these problems worse, have given Israel an opening?

SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, the divisions have certainly complicated the process and has been detrimental to the negotiations that were underway between the Israeli government and the government of President Abbas. And we certainly think that those decisions do not help in arriving at a final and just and comprehensive settlement to the crisis.

So we have been undertaking efforts to create the conditions for rapprochement between the Palestinian factions, and we are continuing to address that issue. I think it's a necessary one so that the Palestinians can jointly approach the peace negotiations and we can see a fruitful conclusion.

RAY SUAREZ: Does Egypt want to see the government of Mahmoud Abbas have its authority run into Gaza, as well, and Hamas not to be in charge there?

SAMEH SHOUKRY: That is an issue for the people of Gaza and the people of Palestine to decide on, but certainly the Palestinian Authority is the recognized elected government. And Mahmoud Abbas is the president of that authority and, thereby, has the competence to address issues both in the West Bank and in Gaza.

Relationship with Hamas

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what's Egypt's relationship with Hamas like at the present time?

SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, we have, for over the last year, had very intensive discussions and consultations with Hamas. We were able to broker a lull in the violence between Hamas and Israel over the last six months, and we were, of course, exerting efforts to continue those, this lull.

Unfortunately, those efforts were not successful and led to this escalation, this dramatic humanitarian tragedy.

RAY SUAREZ: Has Egypt had diplomatic communications with Israel since the air strikes began?

SAMEH SHOUKRY: We are in constant contact with all the parties to try to arrive at a total cease-fire and a calming of the situation so that we can meet the needs of the Palestinian people, those particularly in Gaza who are suffering, and to regain the peace process and be on the tracks for peace and reconciliation once again.

RAY SUAREZ: Last week, Tzipi Livni, one of the leaders of the Israeli government, was in Egypt. Did she give any indication that the situation of rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel was becoming intolerable for the Israeli government?

SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, I think her public declarations were sufficient, but our objective from receiving her in Cairo was to, again, instill the importance that is we should not take military actions in terms of trying to quell this situation, but to provide further time for us to broker a resolution.

We have always contended that violence and aspiration of military activity has not been conducive to solving the problems of the Middle East, and it will hardly be conducive on this occasion.

'Unique' in the Middle East

RAY SUAREZ: There are very few actors in that area that can speak to all the parties involved. Egypt is unique in that regard. Has it made itself available to take a role in ending this situation? Is it available for that kind of role?

SAMEH SHOUKRY: It is certainly available. And our foreign minister has been in close contact with leaders in the region, and internationally he has been consulting with the European Union, with other Arab states, and, of course, we are hosting tomorrow a ministerial meeting of the Arab League, where, of course, the issue of Gaza will be thoroughly discussed.

And hopefully we will come up with a unified Arab position that will be helpful to the cessation of the military hostilities.

RAY SUAREZ: One of the accusations coming out of Arab capitals over the last four days is that Egypt has been complicit with Israel in these attacks by sealing off access, free and open borders with Gaza. Do you expect to hear that accusation right on your own soil at that Arab League meeting?

SAMEH SHOUKRY: Well, I don't think we need to speculate on what will be or will not be said, but I think Egypt's role is well-known. We have been in a position to assist the Palestinian people and to assist their strive towards freedom and the end of the occupation, and we will continue to do so.

The issue of the border crossing, we have to take into account that Egypt only has one border crossing with Gaza, whereas Israel has seven, and the humanitarian conditions -- and Israel's responsibility to provide assistance through those crossings is the primary stipulation under humanitarian law. And we call upon, of course, Israel to abide by international humanitarian law to alleviate the humanitarian crisis that is underway.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Shoukry, thanks for joining us.