Egyptian mediation brought tensions between Hamas and Israel down to a suspicious simmer after Gaza was nearly plunged into war at the beginning of November. Now, Cairo has turned its focus toward internal Palestinian reconciliation, hosting Fatah and Hamas delegations in Cairo over the last week to iron out the details of a new deal that could pave the way for elections to form a new national government.
A face-to-face meeting between the delegations is yet to happen, as the two sides have long been at loggerheads on several key issues in the talks. Instead, Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS), the body increasingly handling many of the country’s foreign policy issues, met with Hamas officials for two days last week, before hosting a Fatah delegation led by Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee member Ahmad al-Azzam that arrived in Cairo on Sunday.
Both delegations gave at least a preliminary nod of assent to Egypt’s proposal, according to three Palestinian sources close to the talks in Cairo.
However, while Hamas signed off on Egypt’s plan, Fatah left Cairo on Monday afternoon having only given preliminary approval to the deal, which will be now be presented to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the final go ahead.
Nonetheless, two sources close to the talks between Egyptian officials and the Fatah delegation in Cairo, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, say that enough headway has been made that a potential high-level meeting may be imminent. The meeting would bring together Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Cairo to begin consultations on implementing mechanisms to hold general elections — which were last held in the mid-2000s — and a new unity government.
The details of the framework of the Egyptian proposal, which is built on the 2011 Cairo agreement, are still broad, with many of the specific mechanisms to be hammered out in further consultations pending an initial agreement by both sides.
However, previous reconciliation deals that left some of the most difficult issues unresolved have fallen apart. A much-heralded accord signed in Cairo in October 2017 eventually hit an impasse, not least over the future of Hamas’s heavily armed military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, and its significant arsenal.
But multiple sources close to the leadership of the PA and Hamas tell Mada Masr that there are three primary stages to the proposal. In the initial three-month transitional period, Hamas would hand over administrative control of the Gaza Strip to the PA, which would in turn lift all sanctions applied on administrative employees in Gaza. This would be followed by general elections, in which Palestinians would vote for a new president and representatives to sit on the Palestinian Legislative Council. Finally, a new national unity government, which would include all Palestinian factions, would be formed.
The Fatah delegation, made up of Azzam al-Ahmad, Central Committee member Hussein al-Sheik and General Intelligence Director Major General Majid Faraj, arrived in Cairo on Sunday afternoon.
However, their arrival — let alone the subsequent headway that they hope to make in the reconciliation file — seemed far from certain as recently as the close of last week.
“We respect the leadership of Egypt, but there will not be a visit to Cairo by Fatah leadership in conjunction with a Hamas visit,” Abbas Zaki, a member of Fatah’s central committee, told Mada Masr last Thursday.
For Zaki, accepting to sit at the the same table with Hamas to discuss the prospect of reconciliation would not change the “reality” of the situation. “What is required is for Hamas to give up its rule over Gaza and enable the Palestinian consensus government to start its work,” he said.
The stark turnaround in Fatah’s willingness to meet with Hamas face-to-face is at least partially tied to pressure from Egypt on the PA.
According to a source close to the Ramallah-based government, Egypt sent a letter to Fatah leadership last week that warned that if the Palestinian group did not engage with Hamas on the reconciliation file, Egypt would withdraw from its mediation role.
The letter played a definite role in convincing Fatah to come to the table, according to Abdullah Abdullah, the chairperson of the Political Committee in the Palestinian Legislative Council, who stated that Fatah does not want to be seen publicly as the reason the talks come to a halt.
Egypt’s pressure did not quiet all of the PA’s concerns, however, as some of the trepidation expressed by Zaki carried over into the Cairo talks.
According to the two sources close to the Fatah talks in Cairo, the delegation indicated that the PA will consider lifting sanctions on 70 percent of employees in Gaza. However, this move will be contingent on assessing Hamas’s “seriousness” in implementing the terms of the Egyptian proposal, most notably the handover of administrative control to the unified government.
“[If Abbas approves of the deal,] lifting the sanctions over Gaza will be the first thing Fatah will try to do. But they can’t do it at once, as Fatah can’t be sure that Hamas will give the Palestine Authority control over everything in Gaza,” one of the sources says.
The issue of administrative control over Gaza has long been a contentious issue. Abbas imposed sanctions on Gaza in April 2017, the lifting of which was contingent on the full dissolution of the Gaza administrative committee — which Hamas set up in March 2017 — and the handing over of administrative control to the unity government.
The Gaza administrative committee took on the task of managing the governance of Gaza’s security, education, health, social development, financial development and economy in March 2017. It was formed as an alternative to the 2014 national unity government, which was unable to take over due to disputes between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority over the details of the reconciliation. Hamas conceded to the PA’s demands to dissolve the administrative committee in September 2017, following mediation efforts by Egypt. The sanctions, however, remain in effect, despite sources telling Mada Masr in October that the PA was considering lifting them.
Hamas has accused the PA of subjecting Gazans to punitive measures through the sanctions, which include decreasing electricity subsidies, reducing employee salaries and constricting the entry of medicine into Gaza.
The most recent proposal for reconciliation before the deal introduced last week would have had Hamas only offer a partial handover of several important administrative entities in Gaza to the PA.
Before the breakthrough in the reconciliation talks with Fatah, a Hamas delegation, led by Saleh al-Arouri, arrived in Cairo for a two-day visit last Thursday.
The relationship between the Gaza faction and Egypt has been rocky in recent weeks, with Egypt having exerted heavy pressure on Hamas to declare a ceasefire with Israel during the violence in mid- November that followed a botched Israeli raid into Gaza, but refraining from making similar demands of the Israeli side, according to a high-level Egyptian official with knowledge of the situation.
Nonetheless, Egypt and Hamas continued to make advances during in the lead up to last week’s meeting. A source close to Hamas tells Mada Masr that Cairo has granted Hamas use of Egypt’s airport for international travel — a request Hamas has long pushed for — as long as Hamas notifies Egypt of the details of the trip beforehand.
Once in Cairo, the Hamas delegation kicked off discussions with GIS officials on the reconciliation file.
“Hamas made it clear in the meeting with the GIS that they want the sanctions to be lifted. Once this is done, the PA can take control over every department and ministry in Gaza,” the source close to Hamas says.
The Hamas delegation also expressed concern about being able to pay administrative employees’ salaries, according to the source, if the preparations for elections take longer than the six months of pledged Qatari funding that has already begun to trickle into the strip.
On the second day of the visit, the source says talks centered on the facilitation of further aid to Gaza to come in the first week of December, almost two months after Egypt and Hamas struck a deal to de-escalate the weekly Great March of Return protests against Israeli occupation.
These facilitations will include the continued flow of Qatari aid money into Gaza, as per the truce agreement reached prior to the latest escalation in violence. Israel will also provide Gaza with a 100-megawatt share of power from one of its electricity lines, Egypt confirmed, and will allow an increase of the permitted fishing zone for Gazan fishermen from nine to 20 nautical miles. Israel will also grant permits for traders to enter Gaza and will allow some previously banned materials into the strip. In the past, Israel has prevented the entry of materials necessary for construction, including certain types of wood and cement, as well as some electronic devices.