Last week Cairo received a delegation from Hamas for three days of talks. The agenda, focussed on security and political issues, included border controls and the reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah. While not the first visit of its type, sources close to the discussions say hopes are high that the latest meetings would be more productive than the last visit of a Hamas delegation to Cairo in March 2016.
The Gaza side has certainly sounded optimistic, even as Cairo struck a cautious note. Egyptian officials are said to be worried that Hamas will try to change the rules of the game.
The latest Gazan delegation comprised three key Hamas leaders, two of them taking part in the talks for the first time though they are far from being new faces in Cairo. It comprised Ismail Haniyeh, vice chairman of the Hamas political bureau and de facto prime minister of Gaza and Rawhi Mushtaha, a member of the Hamas political bureau released in 2011 as part of a prisoner exchange deal with Israel brokered by Egypt. Mushtaha has spent nearly a quarter of a century in Israeli jails. The third member, the common denominator among Hamas delegations to Cairo for a decade, is Moussa Abu Marzouk. Perhaps coincidentally the Cairo team handling the Hamas case has also changed.
On the security track Cairo has been forced to reiterate demands Hamas cease intervening in Egypt’s domestic affairs and cooperate over security coordination. Believing Hamas has avoided taking such matters seriously Cairo has started to work more closely with Gaza-based Islamic Jihad.
An observer in Cairo told Al-Ahram Weekly that security is Egypt’s primary concern as far as its relations with Hamas are concerned. And while there are several security-related developments that the two sides will have discussed whether or not Hamas responds positively to Egyptian security demands remains an open question.
“Hamas still relies on machinations,” said one source.
Hamas continues to harbour Egyptians wanted by the authorities. Following the Egyptian army’s recent operation in Gabal Al-Halal in Sinai a number of terrorist leaders managed to escape into Gaza, senior leaders of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) such as Suleiman Al-Sawarka among them. Al-Sawarka is almost certain to have joined up with Salafist jihadist groups in Gaza.
An Egyptian source told the Weekly, “we not only told Hamas the names of the operatives wanted but also their locations.” Yet Hamas, he adds, pretends it knows nothing of the fugitives.
Some sources believe that during the latest visit the Hamas delegation will have attempted to use ABM leaders in Gaza as a bargaining chip to secure the release of four Al-Qassam Brigade operatives whom they claim are being held by Egyptian security.
Following his return to Gaza, Haniyeh announced that the visit to Cairo was “successful” and his meetings with the head of Egyptian intelligence and other security officials “fruitful”. The visit “revealed the strategic nature of the relationship with Egypt and its central role with respect to the Palestinian cause,” he said.
More significant were the remarks of Ahmed Youssef, an advisor to Haniyeh, who told the Weekly by phone from Gaza that “even considering the circumstances that have strained relations between Cairo and Hamas since 2013 Cairo remains the most important of all regional parties in relation to the Palestinian cause.”
Haniyeh, who said the talks had “discussed everything”, particularly mentioned the Rafah crossing and Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation.
Egypt delivered truckloads of wheat to Gaza on Saturday morning and opened the Rafah crossing, exceptionally, for four days. Palestinian observers hailed the move as a concrete sign relations were improving. In Egypt, however, the move was read as a tactical easing of the blockade.
Sobhi Asila, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said: “The visit marks the beginning of a new phase in the relationship with Egypt, in which the two sides are resolved to overcome tensions in order to secure common interests. I think that Hamas has grown more aware of the depth of the security problem facing Egypt and more convinced that Egypt is determined to deal with this whatever the costs. It also realises Hamas will pay dearly if it remains an obstacle. It is also in Hamas’s interests to address popular tensions in Gaza by soothing relations with Egypt.” Asila also noted “an additional variable with regard to the international and regional climate: Trump’s accession to power in the US.”
“Trump has urged support for Egypt in its war against terrorism and he is an ardent supporter of Israel.”
Mohamed Abu Shaar, a political analyst from Gaza, believes Hamas is eager to repair its relationship with Cairo, at least formally. “We need to concentrate on the complexities of the security question which is the crux of this relationship,” he says. “Hamas wants the four Qassam Brigade operatives but it knows Cairo won’t hand them over unless Hamas delivers the people who are wanted by Cairo. Hamas is afraid that if it meets Cairo’s demand the Salafi jihadist factions in the Strip will turn against it, and in doing so deprive Hamas of the income from the few tunnels that have not yet been closed.”
There are rumours that some officers in the southern security sectors of Gaza have switched allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). Reports from Gaza suggest that Hamas probably does not know much about these people apart from the fact that one of their militias is the Abu Omar Hadid Brigade.
“There is evidence of communication between IS operatives in Gaza extending to groups beyond the Abu Omar Hadid Brigade,” says Abu Shaar. “The question is whether Hamas will give preference to trying to preserve the income it generates through the few remaining tunnels or to efforts to resume as good a relationship as possible with Cairo. This will become clear in the coming days.”
The balance of power between various factions in Gaza also plays into the equation. The balance has changed in recent years with the emergence of Salafist jihadist groups. There is a growing rivalry in terms of image, with more radical elements casting themselves as real jihadists in the fight against Israel as opposed to “political players” like Hamas. How much this process has eroded Hamas’ popular base is a pertinent question.
Youssef speaks of “a new language between Cairo and Hamas” and “something new in Gaza”. He identifies the 2011 agreement on a Palestinian reconciliation process as marking the start of the change. While Haniyeh’s advisor does not deny that there are problems related to the border which pose a security threat to Egypt he stresses that “they pose a threat to Gaza too which is why there will be security cooperation.”
Progress on Fatah-Hamas reconciliation remains contingent on summoning the necessary political will. The process has effectively been on hold since the agreement was signed in Cairo in 2011. According to Youssef, Hamas doubts whether Fatah will adhere to its commitments under the agreement though he says if Cairo can guarantee Fatah fulfils its obligations then a reconciliation could be in reach.