From Friday evening to early Saturday morning the equivalent of a high-jinks, nail-biting rescue movie occurred at the Israeli embassy in Cairo. As far as the endangered individuals were concerned, it even had a happy ending. Nothing else about it inspires much cheer, though.
It started (timeline here) at about 5 p.m. on Friday when about five thousand Egyptian protesters who had been at legendary Tahrir Square—from which not long ago Thomas Friedman was extolling the “democracy youth” and saying “Israel was not part of this story at all”—made their way to the nearby Israeli embassy “armed with clubs, hammers, axes and explosives.” The “youth” started cursing Israel and demanding that its ambassador and other diplomatic staff be expelled.
Over the next few hours they hammered down a concrete wall surrounding the embassy, overran the building (the Israeli offices were on the 16th-19th stories), smashed windows, set fires, spray-painted anti-Israeli graffiti, looted the embassy’s archive, and—in a reprise of an earlier such exploit on August 20—tore down and burned the Israeli flag. (You can see some of it here, including Egyptian security forces standing around doing nothing.)
By that time Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and security chiefs were watching these proceedings live in Jerusalem on the embassy’s security cameras. They gave an evacuation order, and by 9:30 almost the entire staff of the embassy were taken to the airport in Cairo—all except six Israeli security guards who remained in one room of the building, locked behind reinforced doors.
As their lives appeared increasingly in danger while the mob kept roiling inside and outside the building, by 11 p.m. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak contacted President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials about the crisis, as well as Egyptian officials.
Somewhat later, “according to “Arabic-language media,” says _Israel Hayom_’s timeline,
officials in Jerusalem begin frenzied attempts to establish contact with senior military leaders in Cairo, explaining to them that embassy workers are inside the building and that their lives are in danger. According to Al-Jazeera [confirmed by Israeli sources as well], Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, who heads Egypt’s Supreme Military Council, refuses to accept Netanyahu and Barak’s calls. (emphasis added)
By 1 a.m.,
Egypt sends soldiers to secure the embassy compound…. The six security guards still await their rescue [firing shots in the air, according to other reports], while dozens of protesters are just outside the room where they were hiding.
It was only at about 4 a.m., under direct U.S. pressure, that Tantawi agreed to send an Egyptian commando force to rescue the Israelis. One of the latter was meanwhile in direct phone contact with Netanyahu and told him, “If something happens, I ask that you let my parents know in person, and not over the telephone.”
Not long after,
The rescue operation takes place under a hail of Molotov cocktails. The mob attempts to block the exit route of the armed vehicles taking the six Israelis, disguised in Arab dress and with their faces covered, to the airport. Meanwhile, hundreds of troops and police, using live fire, manage to disperse the thousands of protesters. According to the Egyptian Health Ministry, casualties among the mob include three dead and around a thousand injured.
In the aftermath, Netanyahu addressed the nation on Saturday night. He said Israel was “acting along with the Egyptian government to quickly return our ambassador to Cairo” and “intends to adhere to the peace treaty with Egypt.” As for the rescue of the security guards, he said his conversation with Obama was “a decisive moment, I would say even fateful. He told me: ‘I will do whatever I can,’ and he employed all means in his power. I think we owe him special thanks.”
On Sunday Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet “that a plan for the six guards to escape through a window and onto the roof of the embassy building was scotched after it became clear that 50 angry protesters, with ‘blood in their eyes,’ already had reached the spot.”
On Monday he was reported to be anxious to return the Israeli ambassador—despite the dire scenario over the weekend—out of fear that “the longer [this] was delayed, the louder would be the voices in Egypt calling for the authorities there to bar the ambassador’s return. “
CNN—not known as a cheering section for Israel—confirmed the negative view of the “protesters.” TV producer Dina Amer—herself Egyptian—told how on Saturday a group of them surrounded her and almost raped her, and called them “animals.”
Egypt’s military rulers claimed they intended to prosecute those behind the attack on the embassy, and began making arrests. Still, skepticism is warranted. With Egypt’s economy in a tailspin since the “Arab spring” began, tourism collapsing and chaos reigning, Cairo is desperate to sustain its generous U.S. financial—and military—aid. Its behavior, however, in putting former president Hosni Mubarak and his associates on trial suggests it is mainly responsive to the mob and will not defy it.
As Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, wrote:
The whole world saw Egypt could not protect the safety and integrity of a foreign embassy and could not abide by the most elementary rules of international law and respect the treaties to which it is a signatory.
…Mass demonstrations and the toppling of Hosni Mubarak have brought no breakthrough for the country’s social and economic problems.
…Instead, the Muslim Brothers and the ultra-nationalist movements, long repressed by the previous regime, are controlling the street and dictating their will to the army….
A few more comments:
1. Obama indeed deserves the gratitude of the Israeli people and appears to have been directly responsible for saving six Israelis from a horrible fate. But the picture is not complete without noting that he himself helped create the current Egyptian mess when, last winter, enthused over the “democracy wave,” he unceremoniously dumped Mubarak—in regional terms a pronounced moderate, pro-American and nonbelligerent toward Israel, who more or less held Egypt together and even achieved a degree of economic progress.
2. Netanyahu’s hopes in terms of restoring diplomatic ties and maintaining “peace” appear tenuous especially in light of Tantawi’s appalling refusal to help with the crisis until pressured by the U.S. Israelis have recently debated amending the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty to allow Egyptian forces into Sinai to fight global-jihad terrorists there. The growing impression—voiced on TV by Foreign Minister Lieberman on Saturday—is that the Egyptian forces already in Sinai are doing nothing to fight the terrorists. Although Israel would like to believe it still has a pragmatic ally in post-Mubarak Egypt, allowing the latter to remilitarize Sinai now looks to be the worst step Israel can take, even worse than having it be terror-infested.
3. It has been a rough September for Israel—its ambassador to Egypt whisked out of the country on Friday; its ambassador to Turkey expelled by that country’s increasingly belligerent Prime Minister Erdogan earlier in the week; the Palestinians planning their upcoming statehood bid. Real supporters of Israel should not have trouble perceiving the fundamentally unstable, malicious nature of the region and seeing that the way to keep Israel a valuable ally is by keeping it strong and stopping the pressures and inane demands to “make peace” in an environment where it serves as a scapegoat.
4. A main plank of Israeli-Egyptian “peace” has been the annual $2 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt, most of it going to the Egyptian military. Even in the Mubarak era it was observed that Egypt could not possibly need such military might vis-à-vis its neighbors Libya, Sudan, and Eritrea, and that its military exercises were directed toward the “enemy to the north,” i.e., Israel. Today—when the only good thing that can be said about the Tantawi regime is that Islamist and/or ultra-nationalist forces that could soon replace it are even worse—it no longer makes sense to be rewarding Egypt with top-of-the-line tanks, fighter jets, attack helicopters, anti-ship missiles, antitank missiles, and so on. A rethink of this policy is urgent.
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