How Egypt tries putting off Gaza outburst

Egypt presented to Israel its latest compromise proposal for limiting Hamas demonstrations on the Gaza-Israel border, in exchange for Israel opening the crossing points for fuel and raw materials.

al-monitor Israeli soldiers are seen next to the border fence on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border as Palestinians protest on the Gaza side of the border, Israel, Oct. 19, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Oct 26, 2018

Egypt has not yet despaired of reaching a comprehensive arrangement between Israel and Hamas in order to prevent a large-scale armed conflict between the two sides. In the past two weeks, representatives of the Egyptian intelligence came to the Gaza Strip four times and met Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh and head of Hamas in Gaza Yahya Sinwar. The most comprehensive meeting took place Oct. 16, when a large Egyptian delegation of at least 20 senior officials and diplomats came to Gaza, headed by Deputy Chief of the Egyptian General Intelligence Ayman Badia

Following these meetings, Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Abbas Kamel was supposed to visit Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority (PA), but he canceled his visit following the rocket fire that hit a home in Beersheba Oct. 17 and concern that a military conflagration between the sides would follow. His deputy, Badia, found himself investing much effort to prevent a war instead of advancing talks toward an arrangement, and his efforts have indeed born fruit — Israel’s response was relatively restrained after he and his aides delivered calming messages from side to side. 

In parallel, the official responsible for the Palestinian desk at the Egyptian intelligence services, Ahmed Abd al-Halak, arrived in Gaza, to continue talks on an arrangement. He entered the Gaza Strip through the Israel-Gaza Erez border crossing after he met with senior officials in the Israeli security establishment. 

The Egyptians understand that right now there is no chance for a broader arrangement because of a series of stubborn obstacles — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to enter Gaza (in terms of taking control and responsibility), Hamas’ refusal to stop the demonstrations at the fence and Israel’s refusal to move forward without a deal to return its citizens and bodies of soldiers and without a mechanism that would ensure that Hamas’ armed wing will not get its hands on the money and raw materials that would flow into Gaza during a truce, if it’s achieved. Lacking an immediate chance for a broader arrangement that would bring about significant relief in the closure, Egypt has concluded that it must find a temporary solution to calm the situation. Thus, for instance, on Oct. 25, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman authorized continuing to provide fuel to the Gaza Strip with Qatari funding, after he stopped its flow in response to the rocket fire last week and the violent protests at the fence. 

“An Egyptian delegation came from the Gaza Strip and they requested one more chance, and right after that UN emissary [Nickolay] Mladenov called with the same request. Afterward I saw their position. We assessed the situation with all of the security establishment; they all were in favor of giving them another chance,” Liberman explained, saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is putting much pressure to allow the fuel into Gaza. 

Liberman excels at playing the political game. To his voters he presents a tough line in order to explain why he acts contrary to his declared position of striking at Hamas, but at the same time, he secretly receives messages from Hamas transmitted via Egyptian mediators. He hears the security establishment estimates, including from the Shin Bet, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and the chief of intelligence, and constant reports from the Civil Administration. They all support the Egyptian plan of stonewalling and maintaining a type of status quo. 

Al-Monitor has learned from a Hamas political source that the organization’s leadership refuses to stop completely the protests at the fence, as Israel demands. The Hamas leadership understands that if the demonstrations end, they would have a hard time re-establishing the organizational infrastructure that was built with much effort. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, quoted what Haniyeh told Badia: “We cannot go against the will of the people. The will of the Palestinian people is to fight the closure nonviolently, it is the right of the Palestinian people to oppose the occupation.”

There is no disputing that when Hamas leaders really want to do so, they can control the “will of the people.” In fact, on Oct. 19, following the diplomatic-security Cabinet’s decision to expand the buffer zone between the fence and Gazan territory, Hamas forces worked to control the demonstration. According to security sources, the protest was one of the calmest in recent months, with Hamas members standing next to the fence to make sure demonstrators were not crossing into Israeli territory.

Given the constraints and lacking a broader arrangement, Israel and Gaza call the recent understandings “half-and-half.” On the one hand, Hamas leaders insist that the demonstrations will continue but with fewer protesters and further away from the fence, and on the other hand, Israel and Egypt will allow energy sources, raw materials and food to get into Gaza. Egypt also promised significant relief for those who leave through the Rafah border crossing. 

Actually, the understandings already exist de facto on the ground. It was reported Oct. 26 that Egypt has reached understandings between Hamas and Israel to ease the Gaza closure in exchange for Hamas ending the violence and incendiary balloons. These understandings enable the prevention of another war between the sides and mostly allow them to put off a broader arrangement until at least one of the obstacles is removed. This stonewalling tactic enables tension at the border to recede and prevents the pressure cooker of Gaza from blowing its top, in the hope that Abbas’ position will change. 

Egypt harbors little hope that Abbas would indeed change his position and support an arrangement, and it seems he will not allow the PA to enter the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the Egyptians estimate that the days of his government are numbered, and that in the near future there will be dramatic changes in the Palestinian leadership. 

The Egyptian hope is that Hamas and Israel would keep to the current “rules of the game” and that none of the rogue groups in the Gaza Strip would push them toward an unwanted conflict. True, this kind of procrastination has lasted more than 11 years, because neither of the sides is prepared to come down from the high tree it climbed. Hamas thought it could manage Gaza and at the same time battle “the Zionist enemy,” and Israel thought that closing off the Gaza Strip would topple the organization that threatens it on its southern border. But neither has happened. With no magic solutions, Egypt understands that all it can do is continue to stall.

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