For years, but especially over the past year, Israelis have been hearing about the Egyptian intelligence officers who shuttle between Jerusalem, Ramallah and the Gaza Strip to promote a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Over the past year, they have played a major role in preventing war between Israel and Hamas and have won the trust of both sides. But on the intra-Palestinian front, they have been unable to secure the implementation of existing agreements between Hamas and the Fatah-led PA.
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The issues they are mediating between Israel and the Palestinians aren’t new; Israeli officials say the Egyptian effort dates back more than 15 years.
“The Egyptians were very involved in talks even back when Yasser Arafat was in Gaza,” one said, referring to the Palestinian leader who died in 2004. “But we became aware of them mainly after Gilad Shalit’s abduction in 2006, and even more so after Hamas took over Gaza,” in 2007.
The official said this mediation effort has always been led by Egyptian intelligence, whose director is traditionally someone who enjoys the confidence of and direct access to the Egyptian president.
Egypt’s mediation ended almost completely between 2013 and 2017, due to a severe crisis of confidence between Cairo and Hamas sparked by the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the bitter rival of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. But in October 2017, following talks between Egyptian intelligence and Hamas leaders, cooperation resumed. This was facilitated by Hamas’ change of leadership in early 2017, when Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar assumed the organization’s two top posts.
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In January 2018, another significant change occurred, when Sissi appointed his bureau chief, Gen. Abbas Kamel, as head of Egyptian intelligence. Kamel then appointed Gen. Ahmed Abdel Khalek as head of the agency’s Palestine desk. Abdel Khalek, a veteran intelligence officer, had worked with the Egyptian office in Gaza ever since the Palestinian Authority was established there in 1994.
Both Israeli and Palestinian officials describe him as an experienced mediator who knows the territory and the key players in great detail.
“He knows Gaza and the heads of its factions and knows how to determine who the centers of power and influence are, even down to the level of clan chiefs and neighborhood leaders,” one said. “So he knows who he has to talk with to get results.”
Officials on both sides also noted that Abdel Khalek works closely with Hammam Abu Zeid, an Egyptian intelligence officer who previously served in Ramallah and now serves as Egypt’s consul general in Israel. He has close ties with Israeli officials and with Palestinian officials in both Ramallah and in Gaza City, and can therefore serve as a liaison among them.
Abdel Khalek and Abu Zeid are subordinate to their agency’s director and deputy director, but Israeli and Palestinian officials both described the latter, Gen. Ayman Badia, as the one most actively involved in this issue.
A Palestinian source described Badia, who was in Gaza earlier this month, as a classic intelligence type who doesn’t talk much but knows all the details. He is also charismatic, and Hamas leaders listen to him, the source added.
But while the Egyptian troika has earned Hamas’ trust, some PA officials are unhappy with its dominant role. They argue that the Palestinian portfolio should be a diplomatic one, and putting intelligence officers in charge downgrades it to a security issue.
Nevertheless, other senior officials in Ramallah disagreed with that assessment. They pointed out that Kamel is one of the people closest to the Egyptian president, so having him in charge is an asset.