For close to 20 years, Mohamed Ibrahim, a retired general, was Egypt’s go-to man for managing inter-Palestinian quarrels. He was also very hands-on in managing Palestinian-Israeli relations, especially when it came to relations between Israel and Hamas.
As a prominent Egyptian defence official, the name of Ibrahim is most associated with the details of the 2011 Cairo Agreement, which set out the basis for the end of the deep Palestinian divisions that had dominated since 2007.
His name is also closely associated with the crucial swap deal that allowed for the release of Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit in the autumn of 2009 in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinians held by Israel.
Today, as deputy chairman of the influential Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS), Ibrahim is certainly well-placed to follow the interrupted path of Palestinian reconciliation that Cairo was hoping to officially kick-start this week and the on-again-off-again negotiations on the widely anticipated prisoner-swap deal that should allow for the release of two Israelis and the bodies of two others in return for what Yehia Al-Senwar, a top political leader of Hamas in Gaza, promised would be 1,111 Palestinians.
According to Ibrahim, since 2011 when the Egyptian authorities managed to get the Palestinian factions to sign the Cairo Agreement, there have been “continuous efforts” on the part of Egypt to build on it to bring about an end to the overall Palestinian split. However, he explained, “there has not been enough political will to move on.”
Today, Ibrahim argued, one of the sticking points that mediators are trying to resolve is the structure and role of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Established in 1964 as an umbrella organisation for the liberation of Palestinian territory through means not excluding armed struggle, the PLO has been through quite a metamorphosis over recent decades.
Following the 1973 October War, it effectively abandoned the liberation of all of historic Palestine. In the 1980s, it announced the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the territories that were taken by Israel by military force in 1967.
In the 1990s, Yasser Arafat, leader of Fatah and the Palestinians’ historic leader, signed the Oslo Accords with Israeli politicians Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres that established a step-by-step approach towards the establishment of a Palestinian state on parts of the territories captured in 1967.
Upon the death of Arafat in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas took over control of both the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA) that was established to rule Gaza and parts of the West Bank according to the Palestinian-Israeli agreements.
In 2006, Hamas, founded in 1987, managed to secure a wide legislative electoral victory, and one year later it decided to take over Gaza, allegedly to halt the PA repression of members of the Islamic resistance movements and in protest at PA security cooperation with Israel.
According to Ibrahim, today all this is history. “The idea now is to keep the PLO intact, given the fact that it represents the Palestinian people, and to allow factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad to be included in it,” he said.
“This should mean that anyone joining the PLO will need to acknowledge and honour all the agreements and commitments taken by the PLO,” he explained.
Ibrahim admitted that the conflicting characters of the Palestinian leaders, essentially but not only of Fatah and Hamas, have not always been helpful to the cause of reconciliation. However, he insisted that “whatever happens, the path of reconciliation will have to be pursued” and that “Egypt is fully committed to walking this path with the Palestinian factions,” no matter how tough it may be.
“Without reconciliation, things cannot move forward. No political path that serves Palestinian rights can be launched effectively without securing Palestinian reconciliation,” Ibrahim stated.
Today, he added, the Palestinian leaders “need to put aside their differences. They will surely be able to work together. They have often met, and they can certainly work together.”
Meanwhile, he said that the path of Palestinian reconciliation was “independent” from that of the prisoner-swap deal. In 2011, he said, the swap deal that included Shalit had been concluded despite persistent differences among the Palestinian factions. There was no reason, he added, that a similar deal could not be concluded today.
Egypt, Ibrahim said, “is very well placed, with its accumulated experience and well-connected and highly skilled intelligence teams, to handle both paths simultaneously.”
However, he cautioned that a prisoner-swap deal was in and by itself a tough deal to make. “It took five years of negotiations to secure the Shalit deal,” he said. The negotiations of such deals are usually “very laborious, as they have to cover so many details, including the number of prisoners on the Palestinian side, their political associations, the nature of the sentences they are facing, and so on.”
“It is never easy, and work is under way, but these things take a lot more time than some people may think,” he stated.
Ibrahim would not say whether imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti was on the list of Palestinian prisoners that is currently being negotiated. “This is a complicated matter. It has to be subject to Israeli agreement. Barghouti is serving several life sentences,” he said.
He added that “Egypt tried to include Barghouti on the list of Palestinian prisoners exchanged for Shalit, but Israel declined.”
Meanwhile, Ibrahim said that Egypt had allocated the required resources to embark on its ambitious participation in Gaza reconstruction. Besides the “hard work” that Egypt had done to secure a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in May, he added, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was committed to contributing to the Gaza reconstruction.
“This was a huge political message. It was a message to the Palestinian people about Egypt’s commitment to the Palestinian cause. It was also a very clear message to the international community that it needs to follow suit on the path of the reconstruction of Gaza,” Ibrahim argued.
Egypt’s work on the reconstruction, he explained, is not about the Palestinian factions or the PA. “Egypt has excellent relations with all the Palestinian political factions, and of course it has exceptionally good relations with the Palestinian leadership” under Abbas.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim said that Egypt “is at the same distance from all the factions”. But he added that while Egypt “deals with Hamas as a Palestinian faction on the ground,” there is “inevitably particular coordination in view of the fact that Hamas has been in control of Gaza since 2007, which means that it has joint borders extending over 14km with Egypt. So, there are also security coordination and border security issues to be managed.”
Northern Sinai was certainly an issue. “Our military and police forces have been remarkably successful in facing up to the terrorist groups that had been using the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt,” he said.
Such connections and mediation efforts are meant to allow for the resumption of the political process “leading to the two-state solution that should lead to a Palestinian state that lives in peace and security next to the state of Israel.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly