Egypt’s future attitude toward the Gaza Strip, an issue scarcely mentioned as a key point of contention between Israel and Egypt, may cause the shaky 72-hour ceasefire ending Friday morning to collapse, leaks from the talks in Cairo reveal.
“There is no agreement to extend the ceasefire,” Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau and a participant in the Cairo negotiations, wrote on Facebook late Wednesday night, upping the ante if negotiations failed to address his movement’s list of demands.
A day later, an Egyptian security official said that the Palestinian delegation was refusing to compromise. The Egyptian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said Thursday that the Palestinian delegation’s stance had hardened after the arrival in Cairo of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders from the Gaza Strip. He said Azzam al-Ahmad, the leader of the delegation and the representative of Western-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, had threatened to withdraw from the talks if the two terror groups do not show more “flexibility,” adding that the delegation, which was supposed to leave Cairo on Thursday, would stay through the weekend.
On Thursday evening, Hamas announced that it would resume attacks against Israel on Friday morning if its demand to end the blockade on Gaza was not met.
One key Hamas demand has always been “the opening of crossings,” often used as shorthand for the permanent opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Rafah, the sole portal from Gaza to the Arab world, has remained largely shuttered since the ouster of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. The closure, as well as the chaos and confusion in the terminal during the few erratic hours when it is open, serve as a source of unending anguish for many in Gaza seeking medical treatment, study, or travel abroad.
The Rafah crossing was administered by Israel until the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, when it was handed over to the Palestinian Authority. In June 2007 Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, ousting the PA from the crossing and prompting EU monitors on location to retreat. On Thursday, the EU proposed reactivating its EUBAM supervision force at Rafah and permanently opening the crossing.
According to Gaza’s Interior Ministry, in past months the crossing was shut for a total of 175 days and open for only 42 days. Data collected by Gisha, and Israeli NGO dealing with freedom of movement in Gaza, is similarly bleak. Crossings between Gaza and Egypt dropped by 84 percent since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: from an average of 40,000 crossings per month during the first six months of 2013 to an average of 6,500 since July 2013.
Israel would like to see Gaza rely more significantly on Egypt for its sustenance. The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the IDF branch dealing with Palestinian civil affairs, is displeased with the current Israeli “monopoly” over the entry of commodities and consumer goods into the Strip through Kerem Shalom crossing, The Times of Israel has learned from official sources.
Yet Egypt is reluctant to amend its current policy of closure; nor is it willing to discuss the development of Rafah crossing to allow for commercial use.
Qais Abdul Karim, a member of the Palestinian negotiations team in Cairo for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), told the Hamas daily Felesteen on Wednesday that the opening of the Rafah crossing was taken off the agenda in Cairo. Hamas presented the refusal to discuss Rafah as an unfair Egyptian dictate.
Quoting a “knowledgeable source,” Hamas daily Al-Resalah reported on Thursday that Egypt had informed the Palestinian factions in Cairo of its decision to exclude the Rafah crossing from negotiations. “The Egyptian side refused to consider the closure of the crossings as part of the siege imposed on Gaza,” Al-Resalah’s source claimed, adding that Egypt would be willing to reactivate the crossing “as soon as it is handed over to PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the unity government.”
“By refusing to consider the Rafah crossing part of the siege, the Egyptians clearly don’t want to remove the siege completely or partially ” Al-Resalah charged.
Obviously, Egypt doesn’t consider itself part of the solution for the Gaza crisis. When asked on Wednesday about Cairo’s vision for the outcome of talks on Wednesday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri spoke of the need to rebuild Gaza and provide humanitarian aid to its population, and “for the Israeli authorities to open the crossings and break the siege.”
Except that, unlike Egypt, the Israeli authorities never closed the crossings throughout Operation Protective Edge. Even as mortar shells fell on the northern Erez crossing (used for pedestrian traffic) and the southern Kerem Shalom crossing (used for goods), trucks continued to enter the Strip and passengers continued to pass in and out of the territory. According to COGAT, more than 1,500 trucks loaded with produce and medicine entered the Gaza Strip since July 8, when the operation began, and over 3,000 civilians crossed through Erez in both directions, nearly 1,000 of them for medical reasons.
Gisha, the Israeli NGO, has called on Israel to expand import and export to and from Gaza, and to allow freer passage out of the Strip for civilians. Currently, mostly patients and their family members are able to cross into Israel, constituting less than 1 percent of the traffic prior to September 2000, when the Second Intifada erupted.
But there is clearly a larger issue at play here, namely Egypt’s future relations with Hamas. On its border, Egypt would like to deal exclusively with Abbas and the PA; never with their Islamist rivals.
Asked whether Egypt would consider engaging the Palestinian organization (after having dubbed it a terror organization in March), Egyptian sources told A-Sharq Al-Awsat Thursday that “it is much too early to discuss the matter,” which could negatively impact the ceasefire talks.
Hamas, for its part, seemed fed up with the Egyptian mediation on Thursday, continuing to eye Turkey and Qatar as alternative brokers if talks in Cairo collapsed.
“Despite the Egyptian position, which deals negatively with the demands of the [Palestinian] factions, observers believe that its position could change due to the insistence of Hamas’s representatives on the Palestinian demands; especially considering there are other mediators, Turkey and Qatar, which are prepared to take an alternative role if talks in Cairo fail,” read the article in Al-Resalah, the Hamas newspaper.
Indeed, on Thursday morning Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk signaled that his movement was ready to walk away from the table.
“If peace ever had a chance, it was lost with the body parts of our children and the stones of our homes,” he wrote on Facebook. “There is no guarantee for what is agreed upon but the weapons of the resistance. America is no guarantor, since it decided on the siege and provided weapons for the destruction.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.