Four Hamas members who were abducted en route to the Cairo airport more than three years ago arrived Feb. 28, unannounced, back at the Gaza Strip. Neither Hamas nor Egyptian authorities had mentioned anything about the matter ahead of time.
For years, Egypt repeatedly denied any connection to the disappearance of the men, who were taken by unidentified gunmen in Sinai on Aug. 19, 2015. The Hamas members had been on a bus heading from the Rafah border crossing to Cairo International Airport.
Their release came after a three-week visit from a high-ranking delegation headed by Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh to Egypt, where he held talks with officials in the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate. Upon returning to the Gaza Strip on Feb. 28, Haniyeh said the talks had centered on the abducted men. He thanked the Egyptian leadership for its decision, which he said “reflects the deep relations between the two peoples.”
The men were Abdel Dayem Abu Labda, Abdullah Abu al-Jabin, Hussein al-Zebda and Yasser Zanoun. Four other men unaffiliated with Hamas who had been kidnapped at the same time also were released.
Egyptian authorities made no official comment about the release.
The sudden development in the case raises questions about what commitments Hamas might have made in exchange for Cairo settling the situation, especially with the imminent declaration of the US peace plan for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Leaks about the still-unseen plan say it will seek to establish a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Al-Monitor that Egypt's decision "is not about promises that Hamas made, but rather a deepening trust in Hamas-Egypt relations.” He added that Egypt is genuinely interested in the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, and both parties want to secure their shared interests on the border and the Rafah crossing.
Qassem said Egypt is expected to work on conciliation understandings between Israel and the Palestinian factions in Gaza, which Cairo is brokering. The understandings aim to de-escalate the Great Return March protests on the Gaza Strip border with Israel, in exchange for improving conditions in Gaza.
Hamas-Egypt relations, which worsened when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was elected Egypt's president in 2014, started to improve last year after both sides reached a security agreement. Also, Egypt and the UN helped broker an unofficial understanding regarding a Hamas-Israel truce.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), led by Hamas rival Fatah, hasn't been involved in negotiations to improve the humanitarian and economic situation in the Gaza Strip and therefore doesn't approve of them. It accuses Hamas of serving US interests, calling it “a conspiracy tool" for the US peace plan.
Fatah also accuses Hamas of sending messages to Israel and the administration of US President Donald Trump confirming Hamas’ approval of the deal. According to the leaks, the plan would establish a Hamas-controlled Palestinian state in Gaza — and not the PA-controlled West Bank. In return, the deal supposedly calls for a long-term truce; Fatah says this would be detrimental to the goal of a united, independent Palestinian state set up according to 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital and the right of refugees to return to territory Israel now occupies.
Qassem denied that Hamas is involved in the deal and wants to separate the two Palestinian territories.
“The PA is the one that wants to separate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank by announcing the dissolution of the Palestinian Legislative Council in December and imposing sanctions against employees,” he said in reference to the PA cutting the salaries of dozens of PA employees in Gaza in January.
Qassem noted, “We clearly spoke with our Egyptian brothers and told them that we refuse any solution that undermines Palestinian rights or any measure that would separate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank.”
PLO leader Zulfiqar Swairjo told Al-Monitor that Egypt's leadership saw in Hamas' recent visit to Cairo a change in Hamas’ strategies regarding the nature of the conflict with Israel. As a result, Hamas-Egypt relations warmed up, and Egypt released the abducted men.
But Swairjo seemed suspicious about Egypt's intentions behind releasing the men and said, “I don’t think the release is innocent, and I believe it is related to the [US peace plan]."
Egypt is playing a key role in the deal as it seeks to push Hamas to accept a truce with Israel in exchange for opening the Rafah border crossing permanently, which would alleviate the blockade and improve the economic situation in the Gaza Strip.
The Qatari-funded Al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper in July cited Egyptian political sources as saying, “The Egyptian army started implementing new instructions in North Sinai in the past few days, in light of regional political understandings that are part of Trump’s plan to settle the Palestinian cause.”
Swairjo added that the deal the US administration plans to propose after the Israeli elections in April will take advantage of Gaza’s pressing needs and fund politicized economic and humanitarian projects.
Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University, told Al-Monitor, “We can't predict the commitment Hamas made in exchange for the release of the four abducted members. But, we can't overlook the clear development in Hamas-Egyptian relations since June 2017, after Yahya Sinwar was elected as leader of Hamas in Gaza and met with sovereign parties in Egypt. These meetings were crowned with a security agreement, per which the borders were secured and [Hamas] smuggling operations were controlled.”
Under that agreement, Hamas established a buffer zone on the border with Egypt and tightened its security grip on the crossing to prevent smuggling of weapons and militants, in exchange for Egypt opening the Rafah border crossing permanently.
Abu Saada added, “Egypt is concerned with ensuring the situation in Gaza doesn't turn into a humanitarian crisis and making sure things don't go downhill in a way that would affect Israeli-Hamas relations and diverge them from the truce efforts.”
In cooperation with the UN and countries in the region such as Qatar, Egypt is seeking to improve the humanitarian situation and curb tensions on the Gaza border with Israel to ensure stability in the region.
UN Middle East Envoy Nikolay Mladenov announced that 10,000 temporary jobs are being created for unemployed Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. He tweeted Feb. 28 that this step is part of efforts to calm the situation there. He added, “Glad to see agreements have been finalized.”
The US administration is expected to announce its peace proposal between Palestinians and Israelis after Israel's parliamentary elections in April. Leaks indicate the plan includes granting the Gaza Strip self-rule that is politically connected to West Bank self-rule areas, in addition to big economic incentives.
The PA refuses to discuss any peace plan with the United States, citing Trump's official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017.