Since the end of the Israel-Hamas conflict in May, Egypt has been busy pursuing several goals serving its long-term national interests. The most notable achievement was Cairo’s brokering a cease-fire and long-term armistice between Israel and Gaza’s Palestinian factions. This was not done out of a sense of altruism by Cairo, but rather a means to an end.
The announcement by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of a $500 million grant for Gaza’s reconstruction and the sending of his director of general intelligence, Abbas Kamel, to Gaza, Israel and Ramallah should be seen in this light. The region has since witnessed active political movements led by the Biden administration in coordination with other regional players to solidify a more lasting cease fire.
Observers and experts quoted by Turkey’s semiofficial Anadolu Agency claim that containing Hamas is necessary, and that Cairo is playing an important role in this effort. Egypt, through this mediation, is trying to return to a prominent role in the region as peacemaker. Another school of thought views Egypt’s moves as reflecting important progress in its relationship with Hamas.
While the Biden administration has not ruled out attempts to contain and diminish Hamas, such an attempt likely would not succeed. Consequently, there is no guarantee a U.S. containment policy would produce the kind of results it seeks.
In 2017, Hamas rhetorically agreed in principle to a Palestinian state within the borders of the territories occupied in 1967, but it did so with so many stipulations that this “compromise” was more for show.
Crucially, Hamas refuses to accept the conditions of the “Quartet” (Washington, Moscow, the European Union and the United Nations) that require Hamas to “renounce violence as a means of achieving goals, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and accept previous diplomatic agreements.” These are the requirements for Hamas to remove its name from the lists of sponsors of terrorism and gain acceptance as a legitimate part of the Palestinian political system.
Yet, even if Hamas accepted those conditions, Israel’s own commitment to the two-state solution is unclear, given its fragile government. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid reaffirmed his support in July for the two-state solution to the EU Parliament, but he has indicated that he does not believe it will happen any time soon.
Instead, what we are seeing is more in line with cooperation and containing a crisis based on the belief that the U.S. will not compel Israelis and Palestinians to implement the two-state solution, nor will the parties dramatically change their policies in the near future.
Given these constraints, the Egyptian delegation’s visit to the Gaza Strip should be seen as achieving substantial progress in its relationship with Hamas, which furthers Egypt’s foreign policy goals.
The head of the political science department at Hebron University, Bilal Al-Shobaki, said he believes that Egypt’s efforts in the Gaza Strip are motivated by Cairo’s regional and international goals. In a personal conversation, he told me, “This move aims to save what can be saved, and to help Israel,” which he claims, “suffered a defeat during the last war.”
Ruling out the ability of the U.S. and Egypt to contain Hamas, Al-Shobaki added that the U.S. has always sought to limit Hamas’ power. The Egyptian government is now supporting this position by attempting to run the reconstruction of Gaza through the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah [rather than Hamas], but it is not possible to contain Hamas.
He also believes that the “shuttle visits of political figures to Ramallah are not to promote the settlement process [between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority], but rather to confirm that the Palestinian Authority government is the party responsible for the reconstruction file, and that cooperation and dealing with Hamas is an emergency, and with the establishment of the truce it ends.”
In recent years, Egypt felt that its regional influence has been eclipsed by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Accordingly, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi used the Israel-Hamas war as a means to return Egypt to a central role in one of the Arab world’s most important issues.
According to Al-Shobaki, the efforts by the U.S., through Egypt are “aimed at containing the conflict and not exploding” after the recent Hamas-Israel confrontation. “The United States is unable to end the conflict, so it plays a role in containing it, not containing Hamas,” he says.
Since the United States will not open direct contact with Hamas, which it considers to be a terrorist organization, it opts instead to encourage Egypt.
Abbas certainly does not like that international and regional players are pursuing direct or indirect negotiations with Hamas despite its designation as a terrorist organization by Germany, the EU, the U.S. and some Arab countries. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that it was necessary to maintain indirect contact with Hamas.
Regardless of Hamas’ level of acceptance, what has become clear is that the 85-year-old Abbas, who last April postponed holding the first Palestinian general elections in 15 years, emerged from this latest military conflict weaker than before. In this context, Arab and Israeli media agree that Abbas is the big loser, having lost support of most Palestinians. Internationally, he is no longer seen as an influential player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Abbas’ decline in popularity was punctuated by the murder of Nizar Banat by Palestinian Authority security forces on June 24. Banat, a prominent public critic of the PA, was killed after a group of men stormed his house in the middle of the night, beat him severely in front of his family and took him to a hospital, where he was declared dead.
Following Banat’s death, hundreds of protesters gathered in the West Bank city of Ramallah and tried to march to the PA’s headquarters, chanting “The people want the downfall of the regime” and “Abbas, you are not one of us, take your dogs and leave.” Palestinian security forces fired tear gas at the marchers and beat people with wooden batons.
There is an intersection of interests for many parties in the wake of Egypt’s Gaza initiative, the first of which is showing that Egypt is playing a large and important role in the most important Arab issues. Secondly, Hamas has an interest in improving Gazans’ living conditions by opening the Rafah crossing into Egypt, easing the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip and rebuilding. Israel’s new government, through the U.S., Egypt, and even through the Palestinian Authority, seeks to contain Hamas, ease the crisis, and even reach a prisoner-exchange deal.
What is also clear is that the conflict in May reimposed the Palestinian cause firmly on the international agenda, especially with the Biden administration.
Meanwhile, Egypt emerged as a regional winner. Its central mediating role in reaching a Hamas-Israel truce will likely strengthen its position with the U.S. as a strong and dependable regional player. Egypt’s media are certain of this result, as seen in statements appearing in the official Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram by Yasser Al-Hudaybi, deputy head of the liberal Al-Wafd Party and professor of constitutional law and human rights.
Al-Hudaybi stated that Egypt has become a role model in dealing with the Palestinian issue. Regarding Hamas, it was able to present itself as the guardian of Palestinian interests in the West Bank as well as in any Palestinian conflict. Whether any of these political maneuvers will benefit the Palestinian people remains unclear at best.