The Hamas delegation led by Rawhi Mushtaha, the official responsible for relations between Hamas and Egypt, concluded a four-day visit to Cairo that began on Thursday 29 August and included talks with senior Egyptian intelligence officials.
The venue differed from previous meetings. Egypt has been sending delegations to Gaza as tensions mounted between the Palestinian factions there and Israel but this time the Hamas delegation came to Cairo. And the delegation was headed by Mushtaha, not Hamas’ most senior security official Yehia Sinwar, who usually undertakes such trips.
The visit occurred in the wake of the recent flare-up between Israel and Hamas following Hamas’ firing of three rockets into southern Israel two weeks ago. The rocket fire was a response to an Israeli decision to cut fuel shipments into Gaza by half.
According to the Hebrew language Walla news site Israel might halt fuel deliveries entirely if another rocket is fired into Israel, indicating that Israel is implementing incremental sanctions against Hamas and the 50 per cent cut was intended as a warning. Gaza depends on the fuel to generate electricity.
The timing of the latest missile fire into Israel spawned suggestions that Hamas intended to reaffirm its support for Iran, demonstrate solidarity with Tehran’s regional proxies and promote a multi-front engagement with Israel whereby an Israeli attack in one direction galvanises all Iran’s allies into a concerted response. It is a task for which Gaza’s Islamic Jihad (IJ) group may seem better suited. IJ is more closely linked to Iran and has no political commitments to Israel whereas Hamas, in its capacity as the governing entity in Gaza, must manage its relationship with Israel despite being a resistance movement and an Iranian proxy.
Two recent incidents help clarify the ambiguities surrounding the latest developments. Last week suicide bombers targeted Hamas-operated police stations in Gaza, killing several police officers. Analysts ascribe the attack as either an attempt on the part of Hamas’ more radical rivals to challenge Hamas’ control over Gaza and its security agencies, or an act of desperation on the part of young people venting their anger against the economic insecurity and general misery prevailing in the Strip. In either case, Hamas’ rocket fire into Israel helped divert attention away from internal problems in Gaza.
Hamas may also be seeking to take back its relations with Iran and the Syrian regime to their pre-Arab Spring footing. Recent meetings between Iranian officials and Hamas representatives in Iran point to efforts to restore relations in exchange for which Hamas will act for Tehran to demonstrate good faith. This might account for Hamas’ recent escalation against Israel given it cannot fall back on its usual justification that it is retaliating against Israeli aggression.
Another possible explanation is that Hamas opted to pressure Israel in the weeks leading up to elections in the hope of improving its negotiating stance.
None of these motives are mutually exclusive, of course. And Cairo, as both Israeli and Arab media have revealed, was firm in expressing its disapproval of the missile fire, which serves Iranian interests, in its meeting with the Hamas delegation.
A source in Cairo stressed that “Egypt acts as an intermediary between the two sides but the responsibility falls on their shoulders.” Other observers add that if, as the timing and other evidence suggest, Hamas’ rocket attacks against Israel were intended to serve Iran, Cairo is not to blame.
It is noteworthy that a number of Hamas spokesmen immediately contacted the press to insist there was nothing out of the ordinary about the latest Hamas delegation’s visit to Cairo. They insisted that the meetings fell within the framework of ongoing discussions between Cairo and Hamas.
According to news reports Cairo warned the Hamas delegation that it would not mediate on their behalf with Israel unless Hamas committed to a written pledge to sustain the truce and it is likely the talks concluded with an offer from Cairo that the delegation will take back for discussion in Gaza.
In a related development, Hamas has contacted Qatar about the funds needed to pay civil servant salaries in Gaza. Observers anticipate that Israel will allow the Qatari Ambassador Mohamed Al-Emadi to deliver the money to Gaza, though it is uncertain whether it will permit the whole sum to be transferred.
As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press the Hamas delegation had not yet replied to the Egyptian offer seeking to consolidate the truce though the more fragile the situation along the border, the more excuse Israel has to wage counter-offensives, trigger confrontations and impose sanctions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly