Hamas Leaders to Meet Egyptian Officials in Cairo in Effort to Ease Gaza Blockade

Leader of Hamas's political arm, Ismail Haniyeh, is joined by Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh speaking in Gaza, July 5, 2017.
Mohammed Salem/AP

Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the political bureau of Hamas, left the Gaza Strip on Saturday for meetings in Cairo with Egyptian intelligence officials. This was the first time since being appointed to his position in May that Haniyeh has left the Hamas-controlled territory.

Among the others in Haniyeh's delegation reportedly are the head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahyah Sinwar, and Sinwar's deputy, Khalil al-Hayya, as well as representatives from the Islamist movement abroad, including Moussa Abu Marzouk, who is apparently coming to Cairo from Qatar.

In a terse statement, Hamas announced that Haniyeh and members of his delegation would be talking to senior Egyptian officials about mutual relations and steps that Egypt might take to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip, which borders Egypt as well as Israel. The steps would be based on understandings developed in recent months.

In addition, the two sides are to discuss steps to promote reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which was ousted from Gaza by Hamas in fighting in 2007. According to statements from officials in Gaza, it is expected that the Cairo talks will include Egyptian Intelligence Minister Khaled Fawzi and other military representatives, but not senior Egyptian government or political officials.

At this point, it is not clear if Haniyeh will return to Gaza following the talks in the Egyptian capital or perhaps visit other countries, including Qatar and Turkey. In recent months, Hamas officials have been attempting to project an air of optimism regarding the organization's relations with Egypt, taking pains to report major improvements in the ties that purportedly will lead to a significant relaxation by Egypt of the siege on the Gaza Strip and the opening of the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt at Rafah on a regular basis. As of last week, however, the crossing was only open on an infrequent basis for very limited periods. It is not clear if understandings on the issue would be put into practice following the current Cairo visit.

The Cairo talks are not expected to include the issue of the exchange of Hamas prisoners being held by Israel for two Israeli citizens who it is believed are being held in Gaza, as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza in 2014.

Abu Marzouk said that such a prisoner exchange could not be discussed without an assurance that Palestinian prisoners who had been released as part of an agreement to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 but were then rearrested by Israel would also be included in the deal. The Hamas official told the Palestinian website Donia al-Watan that there are 54 prisoners that Israel had released and then later rearrested. If the 54 are not released, it would mean that in "any future release, Israel could permit itself to re-arrest them and that is not acceptable," he said.

Two Israeli civilians, Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, have been missing since they crossed the border into the Gaza Strip in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and are believed to be held by the Hamas government that rules the territory. In addition, Hamas is in possession of the remains of Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who died in the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas delegation's visit is coming at a sensitive time in the Arab world, against the backdrop of a schism between Saudi Arabia and Egypt on one side and Qatar, which is considered one of Hamas' most important supporters, on the other. In recent weeks, there have been reports of a considerable decline in the level of Qatar's assistance to Gaza and Hamas, but Hamas has denied the reports.

Officials within Hamas have been supportive of strengthening the ties among Iran, Hamas and the Syrian government. Last week, a member of the Hamas leadership, Mahmoud al-Zahar, said the military leadership of the movement still views Iran and the Lebanese-based Hezbollah movement as active supporters of the Hamas military wing. Last month a Hamas delegation that included senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri visited the Iranian capital.