Palestinian Hamas' leader Mahmoud Zahar speaks to the media during a press conference at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Tuesday, (AP).
Mahmoud Al-Zahar, Hamas’ minister of foreign relations, told Ahram Online after meeting with Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil El-Arabi that he sensed there is a tangible change in Cairo’s position towards Hamas. “We feel there is a new attitude, new mechanisms and every time we discussed an issue with Minister El-Arabi we are surprised to know that Cairo is already studying the issue before we bring it up,” Al-Zahar revealed.
The main issues on the table are inter-Palestinian conciliation and detainees in Egypt, whose exact number is unknown. The Foreign Ministry will look into Al-Zahar’s report on political detainees in Egypt who are held without charges, which was previously the responsibility of Egypt’s State Security apparatus. Egypt’s FM stated that those arrested for alleged felonies will not be on the list that the Egyptian authorities are reviewing.
Al-Zahar added that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry is considering opening offices in the Gaza Strip to consult with the more than 1.3 million Palestinians who see the Rafah border crossing as their only source of relief in light of the siege on the Gaza Strip.
He added that Cairo promised to facilitate matters and that it responded pragmatically to the all the issues under discussion. Next week, he said, steps will be taken to address these requests.
In reference to the Egyptian proposal prepared under the previous regime, which had been unsuccessful in gathering Palestinian ranks, Al-Zahar said: “The Egyptian proposal is the basis for conciliation, but there are some items which will be amended, especially where there is no consensus, such as the issue of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) – which was taken out altogether.”
He added that the condition against Hamas, unless it signs the Egyptian plan without reservations, has now changed.
Regarding the visit by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Gaza Strip, which Hamas postponed, Al-Zahar would not say how Abu Mazen (as Abbas is also known) will be received in Gaza: as an official or an ordinary Palestinian citizen.
The Hamas leader answered there were security concerns about Abbas’ visit as there are angry families who want to avenge their loved ones’ killed by the Preventive Security Service of Fatah’s leading figures, Mohamed Dahlan and Abbas.
El-Arabi told reporters after the meeting that he listened to the opinions of the Hamas delegation to reassure them and expressed his hope that within a week the siege will be entirely different – noting that at no point did Egypt impose a blockade of supplies to the Gaza Strip. “What will change is the manner of dealing with humanitarian needs in the Gaza Strip and at the Rafah border crossing,” he said.
When asked about the steps Egypt will take to reconcile the Palestinian internal political conflict, the minister said: “We are starting to make contact. We have talked on the phone with Khaled Mishaal, the head of Hamas’s political bureau; Ismail Haneyya, the head of the ousted cabinet in Gaza; and Al-Zahar, aside from the meeting held today with the Hamas delegation – the first of its kind. We talked with them and are still at the beginning of the road; the former policy of leaping forward, then stopping, then retreating is no longer. We want to move forward one step at a time.”
“We first reassured the Hamas delegation that the Egyptian government will turn over a new leaf with all Arab states, which is what occurred with Sudan during the visit to there by a ministerial delegation headed by the prime minister. The outcomes were positive.”
Speaking at his first news conference as Foreign Minister, El-Arabi discussed the future of relations between Egypt and Iran. “Iran is a neighbouring state with whom we share historical ties across many ages. The Egyptian government does not consider Iran a hostile or enemy state,” he said. “We are turning over a new leaf with all states, including Iran.”
El-Arabi revealed that Iran contacted him in 1988 when he was Egypt’s ambassador in Switzerland and asked him to reconsider relations. After 18 months of negotiations, “on 24 January, 1991, we signed a memoranda which allowed opening special interests offices headed by an ambassador who is assisted by five diplomats.” This continues to be the case and an ambassador has been there since April, 1991.
“Raising the level of representation in an embassy depends on their positions,” he stated. “We are offering to turn over a new leaf and await their response.”
Speaking about Hezbollah in Lebanon, El-Arabi welcomed any contact by the group with Egypt, but refused to describe openness by Egypt towards Palestinian Hamas as a sign of conciliation between Cairo and Hezbollah. “There is a big difference between Hamas and Hezbollah,” he explained. “Hamas is located in occupied territories, but Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese composition, which we consider a domestic issue. We welcome anyone from Lebanon to make contact with us, and welcome contact by any party in any Arab country.”