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Talks on Gaza Hint at Progress in Hamas-Israel Prisoner-swap Deal

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Palestinian officials at the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, Oct. 2, 2021
Palestinian officials at the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, on Saturday.Credit: Said Khatib/AFP

Will the issue of the return of two Israeli civilians held in the Gaza Strip and of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed there be resolved soon? Judging by the composition of the Hamas delegation that arrived in Egypt for talks on the subject Sunday, one can expect significant progress.

The delegation is being led by Sheikh Ismail Haniyeh, leader of Hamas’ political bureau, who arrived on a flight from Qatar. The group also includes the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar; Saleh al-Arouri, Haniyeh’s deputy; Khaled Meshal, who is responsible for Hamas’ foreign relations; and other figures from the Strip and elsewhere.

This is the highest-ranking delegation to arrive in Egypt in recent months for talks at the invitation of the head of Egyptian intelligence, Gen. Abbas Kamel. The gathering is not unrelated to the visit to Egypt last month by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.

According to Palestinian sources, about three weeks ago, the Hamas leadership was briefed on the meeting Sissi had with Bennett, and in internal consultations, the leaders decided that “there was something to talk about,” as one source put it. Up to now, the main obstacle has been Hamas’ demand to conduct separate negotiations on the return of the Israeli civilians and the bodies of the Israel Defense Forces soldiers, and on the humanitarian issue of the reconstruction of Gaza, following the war in May between Hamas and Israel. The demand has been rejected by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and by Bennett.

The Israeli position has been that funding for and supply of materials to rebuild the Strip would not be possible before the return of the bodies of soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were killed in the Gaza war in 2014, and of the two Israeli civilians being held there, Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu. Another stumbling block has been the list of Palestinian prisoners that Hamas is asking Israel to release. Israeli sources say there is “nearly” agreement on the list, but the term “nearly” is particularly explosive.

Sissi accepts Israel’s explanation regarding its stance; he understands that he needs to find a formula that will be acceptable to both sides and that there is no way to dismiss Jerusalem's position. The question expected to be under discussion in Egypt this week is what Hamas will get in return for forgoing its demand that the prisoner and reconstruction issues be negotiated separately.

Israeli sources told Haaretz that Gantz and Bennett are prepared “to make a show of substantial generosity including not only granting permission to allow construction materials into Gaza under an agreed-upon international oversight arrangement, but also making efforts to enlist donor countries – Arab and Western – to fund the rehabilitation work, which will cost billions of dollars.”

Bennett has made it clear in the past that the reconstruction of the war-torn Strip is “a major Israeli interest.” And just prior to the premier's recent visit to Egypt, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid presented a two-stage plan for rebuilding Gaza, beginning with humanitarian assistance that would include reconstruction of the enclave’s electricity grid and water infrastructure, to be followed by creation of an artificial island and a port.

All of this is part of a strategy involving "economics in exchange for security" that Bennett aspires to put in place in Gaza and in the West Bank, as a substitute for a comprehensive political solution to the conflict with the Palestinians for now – a solution that Lapid has said is not politically feasible. The question is whether Hamas, which is demanding substantial Arab and international guarantees vis-a-vis implementation of the reconstruction plan, will agree this time to forgo the condition it has posed.

Hamas has already overcome the ideological hurdle that defines the Islamist organization as a resistance movement committed to the Palestinian struggle against Israel by every means. That happened when it agreed to conduct negotiations with Israel on a long-term cease-fire. In addition, even prior to the issue of the return of the civilians and soldier’s bodies and the hostilities in May, Hamas had posed reconstruction of Gaza as a condition for quiet. That was despite its understanding that the rebuilding process would mean greater dependence on Israel, which is working in total coordination with Egypt.

As an organization and as a government, Hamas also needs to deal now with issues relating to its status in the Arab arena and beyond. The establishment of relations between Egypt and Turkey and between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates demand that Hamas consider the implications for itself. Thus, for example, the Turks have been curbing the activity of the Muslim Brotherhood in their country. The Turks are demanding as part of the rehabilitation of ties that actions should be taken against Palestinian leader Mohammed Dahlan in its territory, and Egypt has announced that it will not permit Dahlan to move his center of operations, currently in the UAE city of Abu Dhabi, to Cairo.

Dahlan, who is wanted in Turkey on suspicion of involvement in the unsuccessful attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016, has close ties with Hamas. About three years ago, there was talk of him heading up a civil administration in Gaza and serving as an intermediary in talks between Hamas and foreign countries and international organizations.

In the interim, major disagreements erupted between Dahlan and Hamas. From the latter's standpoint, diplomatic steps being taken between Arab countries and/or with Turkey are problematic, due to the concern that at some point, they could damage Hamas’ freedom to maneuver in those countries or lead to the expulsion and arrest of its activists there – as has happened in Saudi Arabia.

Last week, just before the Gaza delegation left for talks in Cairo, Hamas and Islamic Jihad suffered a resounding slap in the face from Iran, of all places. The head of the Khatam al-Anbiya central command headquarters of Iran's military forces, Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid, said he discovered that three months before Qassem Soleimani – commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force – was assassinated in an American attack in January 2020, Soleimani announced that he had arranged to have six armies protect Tehran: They included Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen and the Syrian army.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad were insulted, stunned and angry that Soleimani would have portrayed their members as mercenaries working on behalf of Tehran. “Our alliance with Iran was designed as a means to stand up to Israel and the occupation, and is not linked to any other goal,” Islamic Jihad’s Gaza leadership said in response. A similar statement was issued on Twitter by Moussa Abu Marzouk of Hamas.

Such public, direct and forceful responses toward Iran on the part of the Palestinian organizations are the first of their kind, but it was impossible to refrain from uttering them when the Hamas leadership was planning its meeting with President Sissi and while the organization was fighting for its own national legitimacy and its standing as the authentic representative of the Palestinian struggle.

We now need to wait to see how these considerations affect the talks taking place in Cairo.

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