In political shift, new Hamas leadership holds first meeting in Cairo

More than 21 leaders from terror group gather in Egypt rather than Qatar, in a sign of changing priorities

Dov Lieber is a former Times of Israel Arab affairs correspondent.

File: Yahya Sinwar (R) the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh attend the funeral of Hamas official Mazen Faqha in Gaza City on March 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)
File: Yahya Sinwar (R) the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh attend the funeral of Hamas official Mazen Faqha in Gaza City on March 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

For the first time since Hamas’s new leadership was elected four months ago, the terror group’s leaders gathered on Sunday from around the Middle East for a face-to-face meeting.

In a symbolic move, the assembly was not held in Qatar, where Hamas had been headquartered in recent years, but in Egypt, a country with which the Palestinian terror group has had a rocky relationship and is trying to strengthen ties.

Qatar in recent months has been under sustained pressure from powerful regional players, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to cut its support for Hamas.

The chief of Hamas’s political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, traveled to Cairo on Saturday, in his first trip out of the Strip since his election. He was joined by Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.

According to a report Monday in the Pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, Musa Abu Marzouk, Haniyeh’s deputy, also arrived in Cairo late Saturday, along with political bureau members Saleh al-Arouri, Zaher Jabarin, Mohammed Nasr and Izzat al-Rishq, and others from Istanbul, Doha and Lebanon.

A total of 21 Hamas officials attended the meeting in Cairo, the Lebanese-based daily Al-Hayat reported.

Yahya Sinwar (3R), the new leader of the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip, sits with fellow Hamas leaders as they listen to a speech delivered by senior political Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City on July 5, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

During the meeting, according the Asharq al-Awsat report, the Hamas members discussed three main issues: relations with Egypt, possible reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, and the future of relations with other Arab countries and Iran.

Hamas and the PA have been at loggerheads since 2007, when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in a violent battle.

Hamas leadership meets with Egyptian intelligence chief

Following the terror group’s internal meeting, its leadership met with Egyptian Intelligence Minister Khaled Fawzi, Al Hayat reported.

Sources in Cairo told Al-Hayat that the two sides discussed opening the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, Palestinian reconciliation and a possible prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas is believed to be holding three Israelis — Avraham Abera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima — all of whom entered the enclave of their own accord over the past several years, as well as the remains of two IDF soldiers killed during the 2014 summer war between Israel and the terror group: Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin. Mengistu and Sayed are both said to be suffering from mental illness.

According to the Al Hayat report, talks between Hamas and the Egyptians focused on understandings reached between them in recent months.

Oron Shaul, Hadar Goldin and Avraham Mengistu. (Flash90/The Times of Israel)

Hamas has long been accused by the Egyptian government of aiding the brutal Islamic insurgency in Egypt’s restive North Sinai region, but in recent months, Hamas has beefed up security along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, seeking to assure Cairo that it is fighting IS sympathizers.

In exchange, Egypt is supposed to alleviate its blockade of Gaza by opening the Rafah crossing — the only way out of Gaza except through Israel — as well as increase commercial ties with the Strip.

The talks come weeks after a suicide bomber killed a Hamas guard in southern Gaza when forces tried to stop him from infiltrating into Egypt, in what sources described as a rare attack against Hamas by Islamist insurgents. The bombing was the first time that a Palestinian had set off a suicide bomb against Hamas forces.

Sinwar told reporters in August that Egypt was planning on opening the Rafah crossing sometime after the Eid al-Adha holiday that ended last week.

“Hamas wants to see accomplishments that would later reflect on the residents,” a Hamas source told Asharq al-Awsat.

Chief of the Hamas terror group in Gaza Yahya Sinwar (C-L) visits the border with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, on July 6, 2017. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Sources told the paper that Haniyeh would try to convince the Egyptians that Hamas is serious about reconciliation with the PA if Abbas is serious as well.

Hamas, according to the report, wants reconciliation to be handled by the Egyptians, in order to improve relations with Cairo.

It is unclear how long the Hamas leadership will remain in Egypt, but afterward it is expected to visit Turkey, Lebanon and Qatar, the report said.

Hamas recently purchased some 30 million liters of diesel from Egypt, at a cost of NIS 90 million ($25 million) in order to reinvigorate the meager power supply in the Strip. Gaza has been getting just two to four hours of electricity a day, due to a spat between Hamas and the Mahmoud-Abbas-led PA over who should pay for the fuel.

The purchase of the fuel marks a change in attitude on the part of Gaza’s rulers, likely indicating a bid to stave off a repeat of street protests that roiled the enclave last winter.

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