What are real motives for PA government visit to Egypt?

The visit of the Palestinian Ramallah government to Egypt on Oct. 7 raised questions about its motives, as Gazan political and economic analysts are not so convinced that its main focus is facilitating the lives of Gazans.

al-monitor Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh gestures as he arrives for a Cabinet meeting of the new Palestinian government, in Ramallah, West Bank, April 15, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.

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hamas, imports, mohammad shtayyeh, egyptian-palestinian relations, israeli blockade, palestinian authority, gaza strip

Oct 28, 2019

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The visit of the Palestinian Ramallah-based government to Egypt on Oct. 7 raised questions about its motives.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced Oct. 9 during a meeting at the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo with the members of the board of directors of Palestinan institutions operating in Egypt that the visit focused on exploring the possibilities of facilitating the lives of the population in the Gaza Strip and providing their basic needs in terms of health care, electricity and mobility.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) government ended its visit to Egypt on Oct. 10, describing it as a successful visit at all levels. The Oct. 7 meeting was the first between the two governments in 20 years. In addition, Palestinian ministers part of the visiting delegation of 13 ministers held meetings with their Egyptian counterparts to discuss means of reactivating the supreme Palestinian-Egyptian Committee and joint cooperation and exchange of expertise in all specialized fields.

Yet Gazan political and economic analysts are not so convinced. They believe the visit aims to tighten the noose on the population of the Gaza Strip. They claim Shtayyeh asked Egypt to entrust a committee affiliated with the PA to handle the supply of goods to Gaza, saying that Egypt rejected the request because of its interests with Hamas.

On Oct. 16, Ahmed Majdalani, secretary-general of the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (PPSF) and a member of the PLO Executive Committee, told local media outlets that the Egyptian leadership rejected Shtayyeh’s request to stop the entry of goods into the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing and to give his government supervision of this matter.

He noted that Egypt seeks to preserve its own and commercial interests at the expense of the Palestinian people under the pretext of providing facilities to Gaza. Majdalani rushed to rebuke these statements and claimed that they were fabricated.

On July 10, 2017, Shtayyeh had noted that Egypt's relationship with the Gaza Strip is based on security interests.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, spokesman for the Ramallah government Ibrahim Melhem explained that the visit to Egypt was an ordinary state visit, and that its importance stems from the pivotal role played by Cairo in the Palestinian cause.

On the outcomes of this visit, he said, “It was agreed that Egypt would supply the Gaza Strip with electricity instead of Israel, and to increase commodity exchanges between Palestine and Cairo. The delegation presented a list of goods that enter the Palestinian markets from Israel and can be replaced by Egyptian goods.”

Melhem did not answer Al-Monitor's question about the Palestinian delegation discussing the possibility of the PA regulating goods coming to Gaza from the Rafah crossing — which is controlled by the Hamas government in Gaza — and the relevant PA ministries collecting the due taxes on these goods.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Al-Monitor that Shtayyeh’s government does not take into account the interests of Gazans. “It is still imposing measures on the Gaza Strip that will worsen the humanitarian situation.”

Regarding the collection of taxes on goods via the Salah al-Din commercial gate, Qassem said that Hamas, as a movement, does not collect any taxes from any party, since the government entities in Gaza handle the financial and fiscal affairs.

On Sept. 9, Qatari Ambassador Mohammed al-Emadi told Al Jazeera English that Gaza imports $45 million worth of goods through Egypt. He said that Egyptian intelligence and army collect on these goods around $15 million a month in commissions, while Hamas earns about $12 million.

Qassem added that Hamas' relationship with the Egyptian authorities is stable and takes into account the interests of the Palestinian people, pointing out that Egypt plays an important role in easing the siege on the Gaza Strip. “The crossings that allow the Gaza Strip to survive are located between it and Egypt. Contacts between Egypt and Hamas continue in various forms and have not been interrupted,” he said.

He expects Egypt to contribute more to helping the people of the Gaza Strip in their humanitarian crisis resulting from the Israeli siege and the PA sanctions, ruling out any tightened measures on Gaza by the Egyptian authorities.

“Hamas was not affected by Shtayyeh’s visit to Egypt, as things will remain the same,” Mustafa al-Sawaf, political analyst and former editor-in-chief of the local Felesteen newspaper, told Al-Monitor.

He believes Shtayyeh’s visit did not achieve the objectives sought by the PA, noting, “The Egyptian side rejected all ideas proposed at the visit that would strangle the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian side rather focused on applying what was agreed upon with Hamas and on keeping the same approach toward the Gaza Strip.”

Sawaf denied that Shtayyeh’s visit to Egypt was aimed at improving the situation in the Gaza Strip. “To the contrary, it was aimed to impose more punitive measures to pressure Hamas to surrender and raise the white flag to the PA,” he said.

According to Sawaf, Egypt and Hamas share deep-rooted political, economic and security objectives, and this explains Cairo’s keenness on its relationship with Hamas. He noted, “Egypt prefers to keep a stable relationship with Gaza more than with the West Bank. Gaza is more useful for it, especially in light of the measures taken by Hamas to maintain Egyptian security and stability.”

He added, “Egypt's interests prevail over any other interest. Cairo believes that its relationship with Hamas serves its interest more than any other party.”

Hossam al-Dajni, professor of political science at Ummah University in Gaza, viewed Shtayyeh’s visit as a political and economic visit. “The declared objective behind this visit is economic disengagement from Israel and openness to Arab countries as an alternative for Israel,” he told Al-Monitor. “But the undeclared objectives could include the regulation of goods entering Gaza through the commercial gate between Gaza and Egypt, especially as the PA has been greatly affected by increased trade exchange between Egypt and Gaza.”

Dajni argued that the PA wants to improve its budget while at the same time squeezing the budget of the government run by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“If the PA’s visit was aimed to end the trade exchange between Egypt and the Gaza Strip then it surely failed. Cairo’s policy toward Gaza is based on preserving Egypt’s national security. Stability in the Gaza Strip is an Egyptian security interest. Egyptian goods are part of this stability,” he said.

He added, “If the PA had achieved its [undeclared] objective, the Hamas government and Gazans would have certainly been adversely affected. Prices of goods would double since taxes would be levied by both the PA and Hamas.”

Dajni concluded that Egypt does not prefer Hamas over the PA, but puts its national security interests above all other considerations. “Hamas managed to bridge the gap between it and the Egyptian authorities. It proved its ability to control the Egyptian borders, which strengthened Egypt and Hamas’ ties.” he said.

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