Holding the line

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 10 Dec 2019

Egypt is working to strengthen the frail ceasefire between Gaza and Israel, and possibly extend the deal, reports Dina Ezzat

Archive photo (Reuters)

A senior Palestinian Authority (PA) source said this week that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is planning a visit to Cairo “in the coming few days” to meet with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and review the outcome of the extensive talks with Palestinian factions which Cairo has hosted over the past few days.

Cairo, the source said, has kept Abbas briefed about the talks as well as the parallel discussions it has had with the Israelis, with an eye on consolidating the ceasefire between Gaza and Israel that has appeared increasingly shaky in recent weeks.

The PA source said Abbas’ visit will allow for more elaborate discussions between the two leaders on the management of the Palestinian situation in the coming months.

“There is a very complicated political scene in Israel where a third set of elections is increasingly likely, while in Gaza Hamas and Jihad are in a difficult position as people become more and more frustrated with their harsh living conditions.”

Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and Zeyad Nakhala of Jihad were in Cairo for talks during the week as Egyptian mediators sought an agreement with the two Gaza-based resistance factions to respect the ceasefire with Israel.

Last month Israel assassinated two Jihad leaders in Gaza and Damascus, claiming the killings were in retaliation for attacks against Israel being organised by the two men. Jihad responded by firing rockets at Israel. Egypt promptly intervened to secure an immediate resumption of the ceasefire.

According to an Egyptian government source, Israel’s assassinations may have been an attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to distract from his domestic political woes.

Netanyahu has faced two elections since spring, neither of which resulted in a conclusive victory for the Likud Party. Now Netanyahu is facing the prospect of being prosecuted on corruption charges which the Israeli press says could make him ineligible to stand in elections which are expected by March 2020. Netanyahu is also facing a backlash within his own Likud Party.

“It is certainly a difficult time for Netanyahu,” says the Egyptian official. “It makes his political choices really unpredictable and we cannot take a risk on allowing an explosive escalation between Gaza and Israel.”

The source said Cairo was confident Hamas did not want to see any escalation and that there was no coordination between Hamas and Jihad over the rockets the latter fired in response to the assassination of two of its leaders. If any coordination did take place, he says, it would have been between Jihad and Iran.

Last month Cairo told factions in Gaza that they cannot break the ceasefire if they want Egypt to continue monitoring Israel’s commitment to refrain from serious attacks on Gaza.

Egyptian officials have said repeatedly they will not allow a total collapse of the ceasefire between Israel and the impoverished Strip. While this is a longstanding Egyptian position, Cairo has become more determined than ever given its ongoing confrontation with militant groups in Sinai, which Gaza borders.

According to an informed Palestinian source speaking from Gaza, during their talks in Cairo with senior Egyptian officials Haniyeh and Nakhala agreed that neither Hamas nor Jihad would unilaterally launch operations against Israel.

The source said the two men were aware that Gaza is in no position to sustain another military assault from Israel and that the ceasefire needed to be secured if the appalling living conditions in the Strip are to be improved.

In the last few days Egypt has engaged in high-level consultations with Israel in the hope of securing its support for improving access to electricity, water and health services in Gaza.

“There are ideas on the table. The Palestinians have been channelling their demands and we have been talking with the Israelis. The way to ensure the ceasefire holds is to make it profitable for both sides,” said the Egyptian government official.

With their popularity plummeting the leaders of Hamas and Jihad could certainly benefit from a reduction in the hardships Gazans face, says the PA source. And Netanyahu, too, is likely to want to avoid resistance movement rockets being fired at Israeli targets at a time when his legal problems are mounting.

According to Cairo-based European diplomats, while Netanyahu has benefited from the political generosity largesse of US President Donald Trump who first moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, then pronounced Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territories compatible with international law and finally gave the Israeli prime minister tacit permission to annex the Jordan Valley, Netanyahu’s appeal to his domestic audience appears to be in terminal decline and he is probably entering the last phase of his long political career.

“I guess it’s accurate to say that neither Gaza nor Israel wants a wholesale confrontation and the clear message Egyptian officials have heard from both Hamas and Jihad is that the factions want to work on consolidating the ceasefire should Israel commit. It is, after all, Israel that always violates the ceasefire,” said the Gaza-based Hamas leader.

While Cairo was hosting the leaders of Hamas and Jihad, Israel launched attacks on Gaza which it said targeted Hamas paramilitary installations. Cairo asked the factions to “count on the benefits of self-restraint”.

Cairo, say officials, is realistic about how far Netanyahu will go in terms of showing any good will towards Gaza while he is caught up in a tough political game at home but it hopes the Israeli prime minister will at least fulfil the promises he has made to Egypt with regard to the improvement of electricity, water and health services in the Strip.

According to the Cairo official, there are no realistic expectations of a political process between Israel and the Palestinians being launched, not only because of Abbas’ rejection of the US ideas for a final settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle but because it is getting very late in the day for Trump who is himself preparing for an election.

Nor is Cairo optimistic about the chances of securing a reconciliation that would end the rift between Hamas in Gaza and the PA in Ramallah.

“Neither side seems to want to move. Each is waiting for the other to give in,” said the Egyptian official.

For almost two years Egypt has conducted talks that it hoped would end the decade long rift between Gaza and Ramallah. Abbas has maintained that for reconciliation to take place Hamas must cede full control of Gaza to the PA. Hamas, along with other factions in Gaza, insists it will only give up authority over Gaza through simultaneous legislative and presidential elections, a condition Abbas rejects.  

According to Palestinian and Egyptian sources, a senior Egyptian security delegation plans to visit Gaza and Israel to follow up on the Cairo talks before the end of the year.  

The Egyptian line is that there can be no expectations at present beyond continuing to manage a situation that is explosive by definition.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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