Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil paid a solidarity visit to Gaza on Friday, amid ongoing rocket attacks on Israel by Palestinian terror groups and Israeli airstrikes on terror targets.
Sent personally by President Mohammed Morsi to lead a high-ranking Egyptian delegation aimed at tending to the immediate needs of Gaza residents, Kandil crossed into Gaza heavily guarded by Egyptian security personnel wearing flak jackets and carrying assault rifles.
He was greeted by Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who ventured out in public for the first time since Israel launched the offensive Wednesday by assassinating the militant group’s military commander.
During a joint press conference, Haniyeh told reporters that “this historic visit will lead to the improvement of conditions for the people of Gaza. It will be impossible from now on to view the situation in Gaza as disconnected from the region.
“The message to the West and to the United States is that they must act in order to stop this bloodshed,” Haniyeh added.
The Hamas chief said he is confident in a Palestinian victory, and that the aggression will end, thanks to the efforts of Egypt and others around the world.
“I came here today to support the Palestinian people in the name of the Egyptian people, President Mohammed Morsi and the Egyptian government. We identify with the pain of the Palestinian people,” said Kandil. “Egypt after the revolution is standing at the side of its brothers in Palestine. This visit was not just to pledge political support, but to actually stand, on the ground, alongside the Palestinians.
“I came here with several ministers to see what the Palestinian people need, and this is only the first of many missions. Egypt after the revolution will work toward an extended calm, and afterwards for the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. That is the only way to achieve stability in the region,” Kandil added.
A senior Israeli government official had told reporters that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said the military “would hold its fire on the condition that, during that period, there won’t be hostile fire from Gaza into Israel.” But as rockets continued to be fired from Gaza, the Israeli airstrikes continued as well.
The visit was thought to be a possible harbinger of an Egyptian-mediated truce, though a similar ceasefire had been reported on Wednesday, before Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense with the targeted killing of Hamas military chief, Ahmed Jabari.
Egyptian intelligence officials involved in negotiations to end previous rounds of fighting accompanied Kandil on his visit, an Egyptian diplomat said, suggesting it was more than a display of support.
The diplomat said Gaza terrorists have told Egyptian intelligence officials they would be willing to hold their fire if Israel would commit to mediation to stop its military operation and targeted killings.
Egypt and Israel are officially at peace, though relations between the countries are chilly. The imperiling of an Egyptian minister by an Israeli strike would likely push ties between Jerusalem and Cairo beyond the brink.
Egypt has reacted harshly to Operation Pillar of Defense, recalling its ambassador to Tel Aviv, Atef Salem, just hours after the operation began. Morsi submitted a letter of protest to the Israeli ambassador to Cairo, Yaakov Amitai, and called for swift diplomatic action against Israel in the UN Security Council and the Arab League, based in Cairo.
Morsi called Israel’s military campaign “unacceptable aggression,” but avoided sharper condemnations of Israel. According to Egypt’s MENA news agency, he discussed ways to stop the violence with the regents of Jordan and Qatar Thursday evening.
Morsi’s comments were in contrast to the heavy rhetoric against Israel in the past few days by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement from which Morsi emerged. The head of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, blasted Israel as “the project of the devil” during a speech Thursday at an Islamic conference in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.
On Wednesday night, Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing around the clock, and prepared the hospital at al-Arish — an Egyptian city located near the Gaza border — to receive Palestinians wounded in the Israeli strikes.
AP contributed to this report