As Egypt defends control of crumbling mediation efforts in Palestine, Hamas escalates on Israel border
Rafah Border Crossing - Photograph: حسام سالم

At the end of January, mediators from Egypt and the United Nations arrived in Gaza to speak with Palestinian factions in the besieged enclave, promising more facilities after Hamas had rejected funding from Qatar. However, after a visit to Cairo last week, any lofty expectations that Hamas and the other Gaza factions had for Egypt’s mediation have been dashed.

Delegations from Hamas and Islamic Jihad traveled to Cairo to take part in weeklong meetings with Egypt’s General Intelligence Service that were billed in the media as a new round of reconciliation talks. A delegation from the Palestinian Authority (PA) was also in Cairo, attending a conference related to the Arab Parliament.

However, representatives from Gaza factions and the PA never sat at the same table, according to Palestinian sources that spoke to Mada Masr.

“Egypt tried to carry out a meeting between Fatah and Hamas, but Fatah refused to talk about a meeting before a new government is formed,” a source close to the meetings in Cairo tells Mada Masr. “Egypt was thus unable to make any progress toward Palestinian reconciliation.”

There hasn’t been progress in the truce with Israel either, according to the source.

In late January, Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah, the head of the 2014 national unity government, submitted his resignation and that of his government to PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas declared shortly afterward that he would begin the process of forming a new national government.

The move is the latest in a series of attempts by Abbas and the PA to sideline Hamas: The PA withdrew its staff from the Rafah border crossing in January, dissolved the Hamas-majority Palestinian Legislative Council in late December, and has made political arrests in both Ramallah and the Gaza Strip.

Hamas’ relations with Israel are also increasingly icy. Qatari money that had been earmarked for Hamas’ administrative employees was delayed several times in January over what was perceived by the Gaza movement as political posturing ahead of Israel’s elections, a source close to Hamas told Mada Masr at the time. After Hamas declined to use the money from Qatar to pay its administrative staff, the Gulf country decided to redirect the money toward humanitarian aid in Gaza.

Since it brokered a deescalation agreement between Hamas and Israel in October, Egypt’s central promise in its meditation efforts with Gaza factions has been greater facilities in exchange for reigning in the populist Great March of Return movement against Israeli occupation. Meanwhile, Egypt continued to search for a formula that could appease the PA’s stringent demands for reconciliation — an endeavor that has stalled as Egypt’s mediation efforts have fallen through.

In the eyes of Hamas, the source close to the Cairo talks says, “Egypt has made several proposals just to buy time.”

The Rafah crossing has been open each weekday for the last two weeks, with Egypt allowing Hamas officials to lead operations. During last week’s talks in Cairo, however, the Gaza factions tried to convince Egypt to permanently open the Rafah border crossing and allow for more goods to pass through under Hamas’s control, rather than to open it occasionally as a “humanitarian decision,” according to the source close to Hamas.

“Egypt confirmed that Gaza’s situation is too dangerous to close the crossing but said the PA’s agreement with Egypt is the main one used to operate the crossing,” the source says.

Hamas is now strapped for cash, and has little to show for its long engagement with Egypt: Administrative employees protested against delayed salaries at the end of January. The organization has been implementing an austerity program since the new year, drastically cutting salaries for every Hamas-supported company and publication. Two teenagers were killed in last week’s marches. And on Monday, reports emerged that two Palestinians were killed while trying to cross into Egypt via a tunnel along the border between the two territories.

The source close to the Cairo talks last week expects further escalation on the ground.

Indeed, on Sunday night, in what may be the first sign of a quiet escalation, Hamas deployed nighttime disturbance units along the border with Israel for the first time since the deescalation agreement in October, according to the source close to Hamas.

Nonetheless, Egypt continues to present itself as the primary mediator between Israel and Hamas, as well as between Palestinian factions, refusing to allow any other party to play an expanded role.

The source close to Hamas says that Egypt backtracked on its promise to allow the Gaza movement’s leaders to travel abroad via Egypt in last week’s meeting, effectively barring the Hamas delegation from attending a Russia-hosted summit that kicked off Monday with 10 other factions present.  

“Egypt told Hamas in Cairo that Russia is not the main mediator in the Palestinian case. If any kind of effort is made, it should be through us or under our supervision,” the source close to Hamas says.

While Hamas leaders were angered by the response, the source says, they are afraid of backing away from the table entirely and jeopardizing the prospect of circling back to Egypt’s promised facilities.

Many of the disappointing developments came after positive meetings between the two sides at the end of January.

On January 31, an Egyptian delegation led by GIS officer Ahmed Abdel Khaleq traveled to Gaza to meet with Hamas leaders during a two-day visit to the strip, joining Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.

Ahead of the meeting, Hamas had complained to Qatar, Egypt and the UN over Israel “delaying, evading, creating problems and putting obstacles in the way of the previous agreement, which put the movement between a rock and a hard place,” a source close to Hamas told Mada Masr at the time. In lieu of a solution, Hamas made it clear that it was ready to use military force to escalate the situation.

In a meeting with the senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, the sides discussed what Egypt could provide, with the backing of the UN, to avoid escalation and ensure Hamas’s continued pacification of the Friday marches, the source said.

“Egypt proposed to support Hamas financially by allowing more goods to cross through the Salah Eddin Gate, and Hamas could collect taxes accordingly,” the source said, adding that Egypt sternly rebuked any potential military escalation.

Ahmad Shehada 

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