A Palestinian walks past a burning house after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City. Picture: REUTERS
A Palestinian walks past a burning house after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City. Picture: REUTERS

EGYPT’s foreign minister is scheduled to visit the beleaguered Palestinian enclave of Gaza on Tuesday as part of a delegation of Arab ministers who would ostensibly be there to express solidarity with the local population after almost a week of intense aerial bombardment from Israel that has left more than 70 people dead.

Yet, as always in this part of the world, all is not necessarily as it seems. For a start, the visit was being planned even as speculation mounted that Israeli ground forces were poised to invade the Gaza Strip for the first time in four years. Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz was quoted yesterday as saying a decision on whether to send in ground forces to clear Gaza of missile launch sites that may have been missed during the past few days’ rocket attacks would be taken in "a matter of hours, not even days".

A visit by an Arab ministerial delegation clearly could not proceed in the event of an Israeli land invasion, which would certainly meet determined resistance despite the weakened state of Hamas, which governs Gaza and has been responsible for thousands of rockets being fired over the border at civilian targets in Israel. This raises the question of whether the ministerial visit was ever actually intended to take place. Perhaps the Egyptians know more than they are letting on.

For all its rhetoric condemning Israel and expressing unconditional support for the Palestinian cause, Egypt has in fact been at the centre of diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire. Egyptian President M ohamme d Mursi has been in close contact with both the US and European governments and held talks to that end in Cairo last week with Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. An Israeli diplomat is also believed to have visited Cairo at the weekend.

This would indicate that Egypt’s role in the region has not changed as dramatically as many Middle East analysts feared when the authoritarian but pragmatic Mubarak regime fell during the "Arab Spring" uprisings, only to be replaced following elections by the avowedly anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s 33-year peace treaty with Israel would appear to be holding.

For all Mr Mursi’s expression of sympathy for the Palestinian cause and unequivocal condemnation of Israel’s bombing of Gaza — the Brotherhood still does not officially recognise Israel’s right to exist — realpolitik has won the day. Egypt does not want constant armed conflict on its border and an influx of refugees any more than Israel is prepared to tolerate the daily bombardment that its citizens in southern border towns have had to endure over the past few years.

In addition, the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas cannot be separated from the wider issues that plague the region, including the uneasy relationship that exists between Shiite and Sunni Muslim states and worldwide concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Hamas is known to have close links with the predominantly Shiite Iran, and its recently improved missile launch capability, which has allowed it to target Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, has relied heavily on Iranian technology, training and hardware. Yet the Muslim Brotherhood is Sunni in doctrine, and Mr Mursi will be wary of being drawn into a proxy battle with Israel on Iran’s behalf.

Is it entirely coincidental that rocket attacks on Israel from both Gaza and Syria have escalated in recent weeks just as military analysts were predicting that Israel may attempt to target Iranian nuclear sites? If the intention was to distract Israel by opening up new military fronts on its borders, thereby reducing the likelihood of an attack on Iran, the strategy would appear to have succeeded.

This is surely something that Israel will bear in mind as it considers whether to commit ground troops to Gaza.