Egypt, Israel warm ties while working to bolster ceasefire

Netanyahu meets Egyptian spy chief, demands return of captives in Gaza

Meeting comes as Israeli foreign minister tells counterpart in Cairo that reconstruction will not happen if no solution found for Israelis held by Hamas

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, hosts Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel at his official residence in Jerusalem, May 30, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, hosts Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel at his official residence in Jerusalem, May 30, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded the return of Israeli captives being held in Gaza in a meeting with the head of Egypt’s intelligence services Sunday, as Jerusalem and Cairo held high-level talks centered on shoring up a truce with terror group Hamas in the Palestinian enclave.

The meeting came as Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi told his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, that Jerusalem would not allow Gaza reconstruction to move ahead without a solution in place for the return of two civilians and the remains of two soldiers, held in Gaza for the better part of a decade. Ashkenazi’s trip to Cairo was the first by an Israeli foreign minister in 13 years.

Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed entered the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively, and their families say they suffer from mental illness. Hamas is also holding the bodies of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, two IDF soldiers who were killed during the 2014 Gaza war.

Egypt has looked to take a leading role in following up on a ceasefire it helped broker earlier this month that halted 11 days of intense fighting between Israel and Gaza, including being involved in reconstruction efforts.

Abbas Kamel, the head of Egypt’s intelligence services, was dispatched along with a security delegation to Jerusalem to meet with Netanyahu, and later traveled to Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, before being slated to travel to Gaza for discussions with Hamas officials.

“President (Abdel Fattah) el-Sissi instructed the general intelligence chief to discuss with the Israeli Prime Minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) and concerned authorities the fixing of a permanent ceasefire and the latest developments on the Palestinian front,” an Egyptian official said.

Senior Egyptian security officials confirmed to AFP Sunday that Hamas’s leader Ismail Haniyeh would be in Cairo for discussions, but would not provide further details.

Netanyahu said during his meeting with Kamel that he raised the issue of returning the remains of soldiers and civilians being held in Gaza, as well as “mechanisms and processes to prevent the strengthening of Hamas and prevent the diverting of resources that will become available for the civilian population,” his office said in a statement.

Kamel also earlier held a lengthy meeting on the same issues with Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, the Prime Minister’s Office said. Both Ben-Shabbat and Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen took part in Netanyahu’s meeting with Kamel.

Netanyahu and Kamel “discussed bolstering cooperation between Israel and Egypt and various regional issues,” Netanyahu’s office said. “The two praised the ties, understandings and joint efforts of the two countries on security issues and various policies.”

A Palestinian policeman walks on the rubble of Arafat City, Gaza’s Hamas police headquarters in Gaza City on May 22, 2021 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

The international community has sought to swiftly begin the lengthy reconstruction of Gaza after the flare-up, which saw thousands of structures damaged or destroyed by Israeli airstrikes that came in response to Gazan terror groups firing barrages of missiles at Israeli cities. But Israel has demanded a way to guarantee building materials are not used to help the enclave’s terror groups rebuild their military infrastructure.

Discussions with Israeli officials have touched on a set of measures that would allow materials, electricity and fuel into the Strip, as well as the possible expansion of maritime space allowed for Gaza fishermen, an Egyptian official said.

The official said Egypt had offered guarantees that rebuilding funds will not find their way to Hamas, possibly by going through an international committee led by Egypt or the United Nations that would oversee the spending.

But Israeli officials have also increasingly sought to link the reconstruction to the return of the captives in Gaza.

“We will not allow a situation in which the rehabilitation of Gaza will allow Hamas to rebuild its terror capabilities and without solving the issue of returning the captives and missing held by the Hamas terror group,” Ashkenazi said after his meeting with Shoukry in Cairo.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, left, looks on during his meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry at Tahrir Palace in Cairo on May 30, 2021. (Mohamed Hossam / AFP)

An Egyptian official earlier said talks would also look into the possibility of a prisoner exchange.

In his talks with Israeli officials, Kamel also discussed the situation in Jerusalem and ways to ease tensions in the holy city, including a relaxation of Israeli restrictions at the Temple Mount, and how to prevent the planned eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, Egyptian officials said.

Kamel was also tasked with ending political divisions between rival Palestinian groups Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank, Egyptian officials said. Cairo’s intelligence agency, which is Egypt’s equivalent of the CIA, usually handles Egypt’s ties with Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups in Gaza.

In Ramallah, Kamel met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and the two discussed Gaza reconstruction as well as resolving the internal Palestinian rift, the PA’s official WAFA news service reported.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with Egyptian intelligence head Abbas Kamel in Ramallah on May 30, 2021. (WAFA)

Senior Abbas advisers Majed Faraj, who directs the Palestinian intelligence services, and Hussein al-Sheikh, Ramallah’s liaison to the Israeli side, both attended the meeting.

“The role of the Palestinian Authority is central in the talks,” said an Egyptian official. “Egypt is seeking to have it deeply involved in the reconstruction process.”

Israel’s Army Radio said that Egypt was hoping Israel and the PA would restart formal talks on policy in the wake of the visit.

Ashkenazi’s visit to Cairo was the first by an Israeli foreign minister since 2008, as Cairo and Jerusalem looked to bolster bilateral ties while following up on the ceasefire.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (2nd R) arrives in Egypt, May 30, 2021 (Foreign Ministry)

On Saturday, the London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper reported that Egypt had notified Hamas that Israel maintains that any long-term truce negotiations must include the subject of a prisoner exchange between the sides.

Hamas has so far insisted on separating prisoner negotiations from any discussions related to a potential long-term truce or the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu and the Israeli government came under harsh internal criticism for not demanding a prisoner swap as part of the original deal to end the recent fighting.

Sources told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that Cairo informed Hamas of the prisoner swap request after Israel linked it to any further negotiations.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said last week that Israel will not permit the full reconstruction of Gaza, or the entry of any aid that is not humanitarian, until the terror group releases the two Israeli civilians and the two bodies.

Clockwise from top left: Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu, Hadar Goldin and Hisham al-Sayed (Flash 90/Courtesy)

Hamas officials in the terror group told the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper in response that they “cannot be blackmailed.”

Israel and Egypt have had a fraught relationship since signing a peace deal in 1979. Ties have never been warm, and in 2011, Egyptian protesters stormed an outer wall of the Israeli embassy in the capital’s Giza district, forcing the evacuation of its diplomatic staff. In 2015, Israel reopened its mission in a new location in Cairo’s Maadi neighborhood.

The previous Israeli ambassador to Cairo, David Govrin, and his staff were forced to work from Israel for eight months in 2016-2017 due to unspecified security threats. Diplomatic activity was further hampered when Israel’s political crisis caused a situation where for over a year there was no full-time ambassador until current envoy Amira Oron took up the post last September.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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