A senior Hamas leader described a meeting in Cairo last week between a Hamas delegation and Egyptian intelligence officials as “the deepest, most important and most optimistic meeting we’ve ever had with Egypt.”
Moussa Abu Marzouk did not explain his characterization of the conversation, but a Hamas source said it examined the details of securing Egypt’s border with Gaza as well as arrangements for the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing and Cairo’s plans to pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to advance the reconciliation between his own Fatah organization and Hamas.
Absent from the meeting were the Hamas leader of the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, and his predecessor, Ismail Haniyeh, who are upset with Egypt for barring Haniyeh from traveling abroad.
Although it took place before the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas, it might attest to vigorous efforts by Cairo to head off a broader military operation that would bring Israeli forces into the Gaza Strip.
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Egypt has maintained close contact with Israeli officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of late, but a new party may join the talks. Abbas met Saturday with President Vladimir Putin during a three-day visit to Russia. Abbas said he planned to discuss the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Russian cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, but his relations with Hamas and Israel were also on the agenda. On his last visit to Russia, in February, Abbas said the United States could not be the sole mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that Russia should be part of the process.
Russia has so far consistently avoided dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or with events in the Gaza Strip, but it may become a mediating agent in light of its close ties with Israel over Syria and Iran. The dangerous rupture between the U.S. administration and the Palestinian leadership, President Donald Trump’s threats against the Palestinians, the embassy move and the Palestinian refusal to engage with Trump’s envoys have created a vacuum that Russia could fill.
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Egypt does not oppose Russian intervention. An Egyptian journalist who follows his country’s involvement in the territories believes President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi may have approached not only Trump but also Putin. Approaching Putin is part of an effort to persuade Israel to pull its punches in the Gaza Strip in order to give a chance to Sissi’s plan to restore a nonviolent status quo between Israel and the Strip.
Sissi has already pulled back from his traditional position according to which the Rafah border will be opened only when the Palestinian side is operated by Palestinian Authority officials. Two months ago he opened the crossing to people and goods and has let thousands of goods into Gaza from Egypt, including building materials, also taking in wounded Gazans. The Egyptian president requested and received a financial commitment by the United Arab Emirates and possibly Saudi Arabia for the establishment of a new power station in Gaza, as well as later building a common port and industrial zones on the Egyptian side, in which Palestinians will be allowed to work. Israel is still refusing to cooperate with this plan as long as Hamas does not return the bodies of its soldiers. Hamas leaders led by Sinwar are insisting that this will be part of a prisoner exchange deal that will include mainly Palestinians that Israel rearrested after they were released in the Gilad Shalit deal.
Breathing down Israel and Egypt’s necks is Qatar, which is trying to act as a mediator in the matter of the bodies and prisoners. Qatar has committed to investing a lot of money in the reconstruction of Gaza. While Israel is willing to hear any practical proposition which may resolve the matter of the bodies, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE strenuously object to involving Qatar in anything related to Gaza. The Palestinian Authority is also objecting, fearing that Qatar wants to make political gains at its expense, as someone facilitating Trump’s “deal of the century” through its intervention in Gaza, while eroding Abbas’ position. Abbas opposes releasing funds for Gaza without guarantees that he can rule there. His objection is losing steam due to Egypt’s open border crossing policy, a deal made over the PA’s head, and due to mounting criticism directed at him even within Fatah, due to his tight-fisted policy in view of the hardships facing Gaza’s residents. Abbas cannot be assured that Israel will continue to serve as a barrier against Hamas’ total domination of the Gaza Strip. In view of the coordination with Egypt and the possibility that mediation efforts by Germany and other states with regard to the bodies will bear fruit, Israel may adopt the Egyptian blueprint, thus voiding Abbas’ policies of their content.
The objective of all parties excepting the PA is to limit the confrontations in Gaza to a local tactical campaign which will not disturb Arab-Israeli diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Gaza. However, a fragile and thin boundary separates the current violent dialogue from a deterioration that could ignite public pressure in Egypt, Jordan and other countries. The control of Gaza, especially during a confrontation, is not exclusively in the hands of Hamas. Islamic Jihad, which is financed by Iran, coordinates most of its actions with Hamas but this organization, which has no civic responsibilities, as well as the popular committees and the Salafist groups, see in these clashes an opportunity to demonstrate their military presence without being criticized for dragging Gaza into a war. As long as Israel is perceived as the aggressor, their legitimacy to act is strengthened. The result is that Hamas, even when it is willing to contain sporadic Israeli attacks, is dragged along by these groups.