Egypt has suspended truce talks it had been brokering between Hamas and Israel, apparently as a result of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' strident objection to any negotiations with Israel that don't include him.
The abrupt change in course raises fears that the situation in Gaza may worsen again, leading to further escalation with Israel.
Egypt expressed its sudden shift after a Sept. 1 meeting between Egyptian intelligence, Abbas and his Fatah party's leadership in Ramallah in the West Bank. Hamas administers the Gaza Strip and has been at odds with Abbas and Fatah since a violent split in 2007. Hamas is trying to ease the desperate conditions in Gaza that resulted from Israel's 11-year blockade and punitive measures Abbas has imposed.
Egypt's intelligence representative, Maj. Gen. Amr Hanafi, stressed after the Sept. 1 meeting that Egypt will maintain its efforts to achieve a Palestinian truce with Israel, but within a framework that acknowledges Abbas' authority. In the meantime, Cairo will focus on reconciling Hamas and Fatah. The factions supposedly agreed in theory in October to a rapprochement, but the process has sputtered futilely since then.
Egypt and the United Nations had mediated truce talks between Hamas and Israel since mid-May, and recently an agreement seemed assured. But since the talks were frozen, Palestinians have resumed the violent Marches of Return at the Gaza Strip borders.
Salah al-Bardawil, a member of Hamas’ political bureau and of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), told Al-Monitor, “The [Palestinian Authority (PA)] pressured Egypt to link the truce and lifting of the siege on Gaza to the condition of achieving reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. However, by rejecting the faction's calls to end the siege, President Abbas forced Egypt to end its efforts to reach a truce. President Abbas was clearly trying to evade a truce, which doesn't make any sense.”
Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar met Sept. 4 with young Palestinians in Gaza City to brief them on political developments. He said he wasn't satisfied with the performance of mediators involved in the truce talks. Meanwhile, his deputy, Khalil al-Hayya, had said Aug. 30, in a meeting organized by the Palestinian Media Forum with journalists in Gaza City that Hamas doesn't want a truce with Israel to hinge on an internal Palestinian reconciliation.
It’s no secret that efforts made by local, regional and international parties to conclude a truce between Hamas and Israel have been decreasing recently. As a result, Israel is finding pretexts to dodge any commitments made to the resistance through mediators and envoys. The situation has clearly worsened, since only a few weeks ago the truce talks had reached advanced stages.
On Sept. 9, Palestinian Al-Quds newspaper cited anonymous Palestinian sources as saying Israel is behind the truce's failure, noting that Israel refuses to move forward without resolving the issue of its captured soldiers with Hamas. In addition, Israel insists that Hamas stop building tunnels and smuggling weapons into Gaza, the sources said.
Leaks made it to the press in late August about an imminent truce. Talks were then suddenly halted: No envoys visited Gaza, no Hamas leader visited Cairo and the truce was no longer topping headlines.
Palestinian political writer Saleh al-Naami told Al-Monitor, “All signs point to the Palestinian factions being victims of disinformation. No real progress was made in terms of concluding a truce. We are now back to square one in light of the complicated situation in Gaza. It seems that the PA's position to suspend the truce was part of a premeditated plan by Israel, Egypt and Washington.”
A quick review of the positions expressed by the parties involved in the truce shows Egypt is closer to Fatah than Hamas in terms of policy, and nothing would make it clash with the PA to reach a truce in Gaza that could give Hamas any field achievements. This is why communication between Ramallah and Cairo has increased in recent days.
The United Nations, another partner in the truce talks, is carefully trying to remain a neutral intermediary between Hamas and Israel. UN envoy Nikolay Mladenov appeared to be a message carrier rather than a mediator who would influence both sides. He even accused certain parties on Sept. 5 of seeking a war between Hamas and Israel by blocking truce efforts, without giving further explanation.
Abdullah Abdullah, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and chairman of the PLC’s political committee, told Al-Monitor, “The PA is not against a truce in Gaza, but Hamas is trying to reach this truce with Israel unilaterally so it can continue to impose its control over Gaza. It is thus sidestepping the [PLO], and we cannot allow it. No faction should conclude an agreement with Israel in isolation from the rest of the Palestinian forces.”
Meanwhile, Israel never seemed to be rushing into indirect talks with Hamas. Perhaps it wanted to buy more time and succeeded in allowing its residents to spend the summer vacation in settlements in Gaza in peace without any war sirens and rocket fire.
Israel has issued several statements in recent days expressing that it wants stricter conditions for concluding a truce, such as handing over Israeli soldiers detained by Hamas in Gaza, which the movement rejects. Hamas stressed that the prisoner exchange issue is a separate one; it has nothing to do with the truce through which the movement aims to improve the living conditions in Gaza.
Maj. Gen. Wasef Erekat, a Palestinian military expert in the West Bank and former artillery commander of the PLO forces, told Al-Monitor, “The stalemate of the truce talks may open the way for a real, gradual escalation between the resistance and Israel. There is no guarantee that a confrontation can be avoided. On the contrary, the way may be paved for such a battle after the new escalation recently in Gaza.”
The chances, albeit minimal, of an armed confrontation could tip the balance in favor of suspending truce talks once and for all. As a result, a broad battle could erupt — a scenario that Hamas is trying to at least postpone.