Did Egypt go behind Hamas’ back to meet with Israel?

Egypt’s security delegation visited Israel and held talks in Netanyahu’s office without visiting Gaza.

al-monitor A member of Palestinian security forces, loyal to Hamas, stands guard at the border area with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip, June 23, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

Oct 4, 2019

An Egyptian intelligence delegation has paid a secret visit to Israel. Israel’s Channel 13 reported Sept. 27 that envoys from Cairo met with high-ranking Israeli officials in the prime minister’s office amid Egyptian fears that a fresh flare-up could turn into a full-scale war against the backdrop of the political crisis in Israel due to the difficulties in forming a new government. There was no mention that the delegation would visit Gaza, too. 

The previous visit of an Egyptian security delegation to Israel and Gaza had taken place Sept. 8 and 9, a week before Israel's Sept. 17 elections.

“Contacts between Hamas and Egypt are still ongoing. A Hamas delegation visited Cairo on Aug. 27 and previous visits by Egyptian security delegations were made to Gaza. Egypt is present at the heart of major Palestinian issues, including the reconciliation with Fatah and the truce with Israel,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Al-Monitor.  

“Hamas is acting in the best national interest and not at the request of any party and is not banking on the shape of the next Israeli government. We do not interfere in this matter,” he added. 

Egypt and Hamas are well aware that the delay of the formation of the next Israeli government is not in the interest of continued security calm in Gaza. 

Therefore, the Egyptian role is focused on relaying Israeli demands to Hamas, which may exert calculated pressure on Israel during the formation of the new government in a bid to improve the terms of the truce understandings that were signed in October 2018 between Hamas and Israel, mediated by Egypt and Qatar, to improve the living conditions in Gaza. Hamas' actions might also serve to pressure Israel to stick to its commitment. This pressure, however, might be not welcomed or approved by Egypt. 

Raed Nairat, a professor of political science at Al-Najah National University in Nablus, northern West Bank, told Al-Monitor, “Egypt has arranged many issues with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including the deal of the century and the fight against armed groups in Sinai. Egyptians are interested in Netanyahu’s possibilities of forming a new government by providing security calm in Gaza.”

Nairat added, “The fact that the Egyptian delegation did not visit Gaza, as has been the case, could indicate Cairo’s dissatisfaction with Hamas’ growing relationship with Iran in recent times as Egypt, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are competing to hold sway over the Palestinian issue. Hamas is not considered to be affiliated with Egypt’s axis, which makes their relations based on mutual interest.”  

Egypt warned the Hamas delegation, which visited Aug. 27, against escalation against Israel based on instructions from Iran and expressed anger at the continued firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel. Egyptian officials also issued a threat to Hamas to stop sponsoring any truce with Israel should such escalation continue, but Hamas reassured the officials that it would not jeopardize relations with Cairo for its ties with Tehran. 

“The Palestinian Authority [PA] has nothing to do with the issue the Egyptian security delegation is discussing with Israel and Gaza as these are carried out away from the PA. We requested all brothers and mediators to directly communicate with the PA instead of referring to one faction or another,” a Palestinian official close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

Egypt does not seem to see Netanyahu’s opponent Benny Gantz as forming the next government; Hamas and Egypt say the Blue and White party leader might not accede to humanitarian agreements but opt for an all-out war with Hamas. This would place Egypt in a tricky position as it seeks to preserve the status quo in Gaza, not to mention that any war would affect its borders with the coastal enclave. 

Al-Monitor learned from Palestinian sources who were following up on the Sept. 8 Egyptian delegation visit to Gaza that the Egyptians gave the Palestinian factions clear demands for maintaining security on the Gaza-Sinai border and for facilitating some procedures at the Rafah crossing, without bringing up the subject of understandings with Israel. 

Abu Mujahid, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, told Al-Monitor, "The resistance factions do not give any promises to any mediator that they would uphold security calm with Israel in case of any aggression, which will be responded to in kind. This has nothing to do with the talks to form the next Israeli government. If the occupation forces did not stick to the understandings sponsored by Egypt and Qatar, we will galvanize every effort to pressure them. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is intolerable.”

Egypt fears that security tensions will dominate the scene in Gaza, as was the case before the Israeli elections, and that the situation is plunging toward a future escalation that could spark a full-scale war in the coastal enclave. The security deterioration between Gaza and Israel on Sept. 10 almost led to a full-blown war following the firing of rockets at the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, where Netanyahu was addressing an election rally

The secret visit of the Egyptian security delegation to Israel and not to Gaza raises major questions amid speculation that Hamas did not yield to Egypt’s demands not to strain the security situation with Israel, which could have angered Egyptians. 

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