Egypt, this week, continued with its intensive shuttle diplomacy to secure the ceasefire between the Palestinian factions and Israel that came into effect on Friday. As two Egyptian intelligence delegations continued talks in Gaza, Ramallah and Tel Aviv, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri flew to Amman to meet with King Abdulluh II, and then to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
According to informed sources, Egypt is trying to promote a comprehensive roadmap that looks beyond safeguards against renewed hostilities to a revival of the long-stalled peace process, a major reconstruction drive in Gaza, and Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation. These efforts have proceeded in tandem with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to the region which took in Cairo, Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Amman.
Cairo has been encouraged in its efforts by close contacts with Washington in recent days, including two phone calls between US President Joe Biden and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. In addition to the Palestinian question, the two heads-of-state discussed the crisis surrounding the Grand Ethiopian renaissance Dam (GERD), progress in the interim phase in Libya and human rights, according to the statement released by the Egyptian Presidency.
On peace-making efforts, presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi said Al-Sisi and Biden discussed “the latest developments concerning the Palestinian question, ways to revive the peace process following recent events, how to bolster the ceasefire the Palestinian and Israeli sides reached thanks to Egyptian mediation and total American support, and international efforts to set in motion the reconstruction of Gaza and supply urgent humanitarian relief to the people there.”
Radi added that the US president expressed his determination to help restore calm in the Palestinian territories and work closely with international partners to support the Palestinian government and the reconstruction process.
Biden also reaffirmed his government’s appreciation for the efforts of President Al-Sisi and Egypt’s intelligence agencies in brokering the recent ceasefire, adding that he looked forward to continued consultations and coordination on these matters. President Al-Sisi, for his part, reaffirmed the strong and strategic nature of the Egyptian-US bilateral relationship and stressed that Egypt would continue to strive to strengthen it in the spirit of shared interests and mutual respect.
In addition to securing the ceasefire, the mediating efforts of Egypt’s intelligence agencies focused on the reconstruction of Gaza. Israel opposes the transfer of Qatari funds to Gaza at this stage and is insisting reconstruction funding be channelled through the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah in coordination with Israel. Israeli Chief-of-Staff Aviv Kochavi has stressed the need for a special mechanism to ensure that any funding channelled through the PA goes directly to its intended recipients in Gaza.
Palestinian reports suggest Hamas agrees in principle to the PA role in Gaza, though sources in Cairo say the matter is still under study.
The Egyptian delegation is now back in Tel Aviv after a second meeting in Ramallah. The result of the talks in Israel were expected to be high on the agenda of Egyptian-Qatari discussions. The Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Bin Abdel- Rahman Al Thani, arrived in Cairo on Tuesday to meet with his Egyptian counterpart. Doha has pledged $30 million per month to pay the salaries of public sector employees in Gaza.
Israel claims that it has to monitor reconstruction assistance into Gaza not just to ensure that the money does not end up in Hamas's hands, but also to prevent an influx of dual-purpose materials that could be used for military ends. Shortly before the recent war Israeli media reported that Israeli authorities had thwarted an attempt to smuggle gold ingots, painted to look like wood and concealed in vegetable crates, between Gaza and the West Bank. Such reports have been cited as justification for tightening the blockade of Gaza and restrictions on Hamas and the other Palestinian resistance factions.
Hamas has presented a proposal calling for the creation of a National Reconstruction Commission. It believes the process should not be controlled by the PA alone, pointing out that some aid will be directed to Gaza in Hamas's name by sympathetic and supportive Islamic organisations and governments. Khaled Mashaal, the former head of Hamas's politburo abroad, adamantly opposes the transfer of reconstruction funding to Gaza via the PA and insists it should be channelled directly through Hamas.
Washington has said that it will work with the UN to help coordinate funding through the PA and that there are no grounds for the international community to accept Hamas’s demand. The UN is expected to sponsor an international conference on Gaza reconstruction soon.
Another crucial topic in the talks is the situation in Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighbourhood where the eviction of several Palestinian families from their homes sparked wider protests and unrest that spread throughout the occupied territories, including to Al-Aqsa Mosque. Hamas Spokesman Abdel-Latif Al-Qanou said that Hamas and other Palestinian factions discussed the situation with the Egyptian delegation on Sunday. “All means of confrontation will remain open” in the event that the Israeli occupation and its settlers invade the Al-Aqsa sanctuary, he said, before cautioning against “the folly of returning to the causes that ignited the situation in Jerusalem.”
During his visit to Jordan, Foreign Minister Shoukri referred to the Jordanian custodianship of Islamic and Christian Holy sites in Jerusalem, a Hashemite legacy inherited by the Jordanian Royal Family. Cairo has made it clear that Israel must not repeat its acts of aggression and violations of the rights of Arab residents in Jerusalem, which were one of the fuses of the recent war. Cairo, in coordination with Amman, will most likely prevail on international powers, the US above all, to pressure Israel into halting such violations. “The blockade that Israel has imposed on the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood could reignite the situation,” Shoukri warned.
So far, it appears that the main thrust of mediating efforts has worked. The ceasefire is holding, in large measure thanks to Egyptian guarantees and international and regional support. If other subjects are still under discussion, all signs point to the desire of stakeholders to move to a more durable situation.
Inter-Palestinian rifts, however, and the standstill in the Palestinian reconciliation drive and strains within the PA itself after the cancellation of scheduled elections, are inevitably casting a shadow over the already complicated talks. As it patiently works to overcome the difficulties, Cairo is grateful to the support it has received from many parties, especially Washington which, under Biden, has shifted away from Trump’s counterproductive “Deal of the Century” project towards a drive to revive a genuine peace process.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly