No deal -- yet
Media hype does not a breakthrough make. Amira Howeidy
looks for progress in Egyptian-Palestinian dialogue
Press reports, earlier this week, announcing that Egypt and major Palestinian factions had reached a groundbreaking agreement on security arrangements in Gaza, seemed more hopeful than strictly accurate. Such an agreement is necessary for Egypt to fulfill its part of the bargain in Israel's unilateral Gaza-withdrawal plan which is contingent on an Egyptian security role in the Strip.
The press reports further stated that an agreement had been reached between Cairo and the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, on guaranteeing Palestinian security upon Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. This, according to the local press reports, would be followed by a similar agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's mainstream faction, Fatah.
A Hamas delegation, headed by the movement's chief political officer, Khaled Meshal, was in Cairo last week for talks with top officials. The talks, which concluded on 5 August, were the first to be formally held between Egypt and Hamas since Cairo announced its proposed security role in Gaza last June. At the time, Hamas, along with other Palestinian factions, declared its vehement opposition to an Arab security role in Gaza in the event of Israeli withdrawal. The Egyptian press reports seemed to imply that Hamas may have had a change of heart on that score.
But it appears that the only agreement Cairo has reached so far has
been with Israel, following intelligence chief Omar Suleiman's recent
sojourn to Jerusalem. According to Al-Ahram, Egypt has agreed
"in principle" to elevate its security presence along its
borders with Gaza from police to Border Guard, which would not entail
modifying the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. As stipulated by the 1979
peace treaty, the borders stretching between Egypt's Sinai Peninsula
and Israeli-held territories are in Area A, a demilitarised zone, to
be manned only by lightly armed police. The Border Guard, on the other
hand, is under armed forces command.
Cairo previously had denied allegations that such "modifications" were already inscribed in the peace treaty, through secret clauses dealing with a future Egyptian security role in Gaza.
But while there may have been progress in the highly secretive Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on the issue, representatives of Palestinian factions interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly expressed surprise at the upbeat tones of the Egyptian press reports. "There was no agreement," Osama Hamdan, Hamas's representative in Lebanon, told the Weekly in a telephone interview. Hamdan, who was a member of the movement's delegation to Cairo last week, said their talks with Egyptian officials had not included a "political dialogue", having dealt solely with such general topics as Israel's Separation Wall, the ruling of the International Court of Justice, which found the wall illegal, and the overwhelming support that ruling received from the UN General Assembly.
More specifically, however, according to Hamdan, the talks focussed on the question of Palestinian unity, having coincided with the explosive power struggle taking place within the ranks of the Palestinian Authority and its mainstream faction, Fatah.
Hamas, said Hamdan, clearly explained its position to Egyptian officials "and listened to the point of view of the Egyptian side". He added, "we believe that any arrangement [in Gaza] has to take into consideration the interests of the Palestinian people [rather than] to merely respond to an Israeli plan."
According to Hamdan, Hamas reiterated its position on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral withdrawal plan and asserted its determination to uphold the Palestinians' right to continue to resist Israeli occupation. "Sharon," he said, "will not withdraw [from Gaza] without extracting a political price [from the Palestinians]. This will create a problem, and we don't want to end up paying an exorbitant price. Just look at the past ten years since Oslo. The past decade needs to be reevaluated and the Palestinian house has to be put in order."
Hamdan said that the Egyptians had assured Hamas that Cairo will not take any steps before Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, nor will it take any measures that might impact negatively on Palestinian rights.
Cairo, meanwhile, announced that it will host, in the near future, a series of bilateral talks with the various Palestinian factions, in order to lay the groundwork for a meeting of all the factions together, to take place in the Egyptian capital in mid September. The all-factions meeting, which is supposed to draft a Palestinian national action plan, would be the third sponsored by Cairo with the aim of unifying Palestinian ranks. The previous two rounds of Cairo-mediated talks failed to win consensus, mainly over such contentious issues as the halting of armed resistance operations, and objections voiced by Hamas and Jihad to the PLO's claim to being "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people".
This time around, it has been suggested, the Egyptians will not try to convince the armed resistance groups to observe a ceasefire; instead, they will work to make the proposed Egyptian security role in Gaza more palatable to them. But the Palestinians seem sceptical, if not displeased. Tuesday's edition of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper quoted Sakhr Habash, a member of Fatah's central committee who is close to Arafat, as saying that the "weakness" of the Palestinian Authority had allowed "various parties" to sidestep the PA and criticise it. Habash was referring to both Egypt's agreement with Israel and King Abdullah of Jordan's unexpected public criticism of Arafat on Al-Arabiya satellite TV station recently.
In any event, Cairo is unlikely to have an easy time of bringing the factions together, and to an agreement, come September. In a telephone interview from his office in Damascus, Maher Al-Taher, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), told the Weekly his group is yet to be formally invited by Egypt to join the planned factions' talks. "We heard about it through the media," he said.
Al-Taher, acknowledging that the previous two rounds of Cairo- sponsored dialogue had been useful in narrowing differences among the Palestinians, opined, however, that discussion of Sharon's unilateral withdrawal plan was a wholly different matter.
According to Al-Taher, that plan is nothing more than "one big diversionary political manoeuver" by Sharon, the aim of which is "distract attention" from the Separation Wall and settlement expansion in the West Bank.
The Israeli prime minister, Al- Taher emphasised, refuses to negotiate with the PA. His unilateral Gaza-withdrawal plan is in four stages, each of which requiring the approval of the Israeli government. Israel, moreover, said Al-Taher, is to maintain control over Gaza's airspace, airport and ports, in the event of its withdrawal.
"What disengagement plan are they talking about? They're talking about redeployment, not withdrawal. We don't take Sharon's plan seriously and we don't trust him," Al-Taher said.
The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine's (DFLP) Khaled Atta, on the other hand, voiced a more optimistic view on the likely success of the coming factions dialogue in Cairo. "We have to agree this time because a withdrawal will happen sooner or later. When that happens, who will they leave Gaza to?"
For the time being, 45 Palestinian police officers are due to arrive in Egypt for security training.