Negotiations over the release of four members of Hamas’ military wing — who were kidnapped in Egypt in 2015 but whose fate has remained unknown since — may jumpstart negotiations to reimplement a Cairo-brokered de-escalation deal that has faltered in recent weeks, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions between Cairo and Hamas.
A Hamas delegation led by senior leader Ismail Haniyeh, who has been in Egypt since the start of February, has held a handful of meetings with Egyptian General Intelligence Service officers in the last few weeks concerning the release of the four Qassam Brigades members, according to a source close to Hamas.
When contacted by Mada Masr, Ismail Radwan, a leading figure in Hamas, confirms that Egypt and Hamas have opened discussions on the release of the four Qassam members, adding that the talks have reached an advanced stage.
The development is a stark reversal from its former position, as Egypt has refused to recognize the existence of the four missing figures for years, a Hamas source in Cairo tells Mada Masr. According to the source, the timing of the concession is tied to the Egyptian intelligence’s attempt to maintain the truce between Hamas and Israel.
The four Qassam Brigades members — Yasser Zannoun, Hussein al-Zebda, Abdullah Abul Jebeen, Abdel Dayem Abu Lebda — were abducted at gunpoint by masked men while on a bus carrying approximately 50 people from the Rafah border crossing to Cairo in 2015. Family members of the four men told Mada Masr at the time that they they were on their way to the Cairo International Airport to seek medical treatment abroad.
Shortly after the abduction, a host of news outlets published statements attributed to Hamas sources accusing Egypt and Israel of carrying out the kidnapping as part of a plan to target Hamas members.
While Egypt’s Foreign Ministry never issued an official statement on the abduction, local media outlets at the time cited Egyptian officials as insisting that they do not know of the whereabouts of the four men.
However, several news outlets cited an unnamed security official as claiming that the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai kidnapped the four men as a bargaining chip in negotiations for the release of 50 Egyptian Islamists said to be detained in Gaza prisons.
One year after the kidnapping, Al Jazeera released a video that allegedly showed Abu Lebda and Zannoun inside an Egyptian prison.
While Egypt has communicated that it is ready to release the four Qassam members, there has been an agreement between the two sides to attribute the kidnapping to the Province or Sinai or any other party that does not implicate Egyptian authorities, according to the source close to Hamas.
The Hamas source in Cairo adds that Haniyeh has promised not to speak to the media about “what happened to the men in the cellars of Egyptian detention centers,” adding that Egypt is “now convinced the four detainees had no intention of carrying out any activities inside Egypt.”
In exchange for the release of the four men, Hamas has pledged to resume negotiations with Egypt over a truce with Israel in exchange, according to the source close to Hamas.
Negotiations over the release follow setbacks in Egypt’s mediation efforts in early February, when delegations from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah were in Cairo.
“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 previously told Mada Masr. “Egypt was thus unable to make any progress toward Palestinian reconciliation.”
There hadn’t been progress in the truce with Israel either, according to the source.
In the eyes of Hamas, the source close to the Cairo talks told Mada Masr, “Egypt has made several proposals just to buy time.”
In response to the setbacks, Hamas ramped up escalation along the border, launching nighttime disturbance units for the first since Egypt brokered a de-escalation agreement between Hamas and Israel in October.
Hamas is also facing pressure from the Palestinian Authority to concede to the West Bank government’s demands in administrative governance over the Palestinian territories as a prerequisite for any reconciliation deal.
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.