The visit this week by the head of Egyptian General Intelligence Service Abbas Kamel to Israel and the Palestinian territories crowned Egypt’s mediating efforts between the Palestinian factions in Gaza and Israel. A source familiar with the intensive shuttling of the Egyptian delegations told Al-Ahram Weekly: “Good understandings have been reached with all sides. There is a constructive and encouraging climate though, of course, what happens next will test whether there exists the degree of political will necessary to translate understandings into deeds and facts.”
Among the issues discussed was the resumption of the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Cairo is counting on US support for this, and sees it as a positive sign that US President Joe Biden has appointed a special envoy for Palestinian-Israeli talks. Egypt would also like to see the Middle East Quartet, consisting of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia, reactivated. Prisoner swaps and the reconstruction of Gaza were also on the agenda, together with way to promote Palestinian reconciliation.
While Kamel was in Palestine and Israel, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met in Cairo with his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi. They discussed the ceasefire, prisoner exchanges, and measures to facilitate reconstruction. According to Rakha Ahmed Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs, Egypt is pressing for a more durable ceasefire and the speedy resumption of peace talks.
Israeli and Palestinian delegations are expected in Cairo next week to discuss all pending issues. Palestinian-Israeli talks in Cairo are expected to begin indirectly, with Egyptian mediators shuttling between the two sides. One problem that needs to be addressed is Israel’s insistence on linking the question of prisoner swaps with reconstruction, a linkage that Yehia Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, and Khalil Al-Haya, a senior Hamas official, have made clear they reject. Israel is keen to learn the fate of a number of Israeli soldiers in Gaza while, according to media sources in Gaza, Hamas is demanding the release of 1,111 Palestinian prisoners in return. The deal, if it takes place, would be the largest prisoner exchange so far between the two sides.
Several critical factors could shape the pace and progress of negotiations, not least the uncertainty surrounding the formation of a government in Israel. In his meeting with Kamel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly showed considerable flexibility on the question of the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan in East Jerusalem where Israeli human rights abuses sparked widespread protests last month. Israel is also expected to stop its targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders. Another influential factor is the recent appointment of David Barnea as Mossad chief, replacing Yossi Cohen. Mossad has a major say in many of the key issues.
Giving peace a push
In Palestinian quarters there has been talk of jailed Fatah freedom fighter Marwan Barghouti being included in the prisoner swap. Mohamed Ibrahim, who headed the Egyptian negotiating delegation that brokered the release of the Israeli POW Gilad Shalit, is sceptical on this point. Barghouti’s release will not be welcomed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas: according to an opinion poll in March he would beat Abbas by a huge margin in an election. Other commentators are less pessimistic about Barghouti’s chance of release, pointing out that, though Israel would prefer Abbas it might consider letting Barghouti go if that sows confusion on the Palestinian front.
In a related development, Cairo has proposed the creation of a Palestinian National Committee to oversee the resolution of inter-Palestinian political disputes and promote reconciliation. Among the topics the committee will examine are the Palestinian legislative elections that were scheduled for the end of May but called off before the outbreak of the war. According to a Palestinian source, Fatah would not have won the elections. While opinion polls had shown that Fatah, itself, had retained much of its grassroots support, Abbas’ decline in popularity detracted from the faction’s chances. The recent war threw Abbas a life raft, according to the source: now, instead of elections, he can form a national consensus government.
Restructuring and rehabilitating the role of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has also surfaced in connection with the reconciliation process.
On the humanitarian front, Egypt sent a caravan of urgent relief into Gaza last week and more truckloads of aid, financed by the Tahya Misr Fund, are lined up at Rafah. President Al-Sisi has called on other Arab countries to support this humanitarian drive. UNRWA has warned of a dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and called for more urgent relief. Washington has announced that its assistance, which also includes monetary aid, will be transferred via the PA. It insists that the aid must be transferred directly to its intended recipients without passing through Hamas’ hands. This was one of the issues the Egyptian delegation discussed in Gaza. It appears that a solution has been reached in the form of an Egyptian government committee, aided by a committee made up of representatives from the different factions.
Egypt has also launched the reconstruction of Gaza. Sinwar and Kamel laid the cornerstone for Al-Sisi Residential City which is being constructed on 0.4 km2 of land overlooking Bahr Nusseirat, and will offer 10,000 housing units. Palestinian factional leaders and PA ministers attended the ceremony.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly