Egypt treads carefully as Gaza broker

Cairo (AFP) –


A long-standing mediator, Egypt is manoeuvring between Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate a durable truce to violence that has flared in the Gaza Strip in recent months -- but with utmost discretion.

Deadly clashes since protests began along the Gaza border with Israel on March 30 have at times generated fears of a new war between the Jewish state and the strip's Islamist rulers Hamas.

But on November 2, the frontier between the blockaded enclave and Israel had one of its calmest Fridays since the protest movement started.

At least 218 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers over the last seven months or so, according to a tally kept by AFP. One Israeli soldier has been shot dead in the violence.

The ongoing diplomatic efforts focus first and foremost on brokering an agreement that would see Hamas snuff out border protests in exchange for Israel softening its crippling decade-long blockade.

- Seeking 'durable calm' -

Egypt has been central to these moves, and the UN is also involved.

"We are working to ensure that there will never be any kind of armed conflict in the (Gaza) Strip and West Bank," Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Sunday.

The indirect negotiations have been unfolding in great secrecy, and scant information has filtered out.

Egyptian media, including outlets close to the regime, has referred only to Palestinian sources or reports from Israel in its coverage of the talks.

"Egypt is continuing its efforts to achieve a durable calm," a Hamas source told AFP, asking not to be named.

"There have been several meetings with the Hamas leadership and (other Palestinian) factions for this purpose."

An Egyptian diplomatic source said Gaza was high on the state's priority list.

"All Egyptian agencies are mobilised for the issue," he told AFP, asking not to be named.

"The Egyptian authorities don't release information because the negotiations are ongoing," he added.

- Hamas-Fatah rift -

Egypt's intelligence service -- rather than foreign ministry -- is managing the Palestinian file.

"There are obviously diplomatic and political factors but to their minds (the Egyptians) the situation is a security one," said Zack Gold, a Middle East analyst at the US-based CNA research centre.

Since Egypt's military toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement in 2013, the north of the Sinai peninsula -- which borders Gaza -- has been hit by an Islamic State group insurgency.

In February, Egypt's military launched an offensive to neutralise the jihadists in Sinai, but Cairo has for years considered the entire area a security priority.

It has therefore been at the forefront of Gaza diplomacy since 2014, when the latest of three wars between Hamas and Israel took place in the Palestinian enclave.

Egyptian mediation yielded a ceasefire between Hamas and the Jewish state four years ago, but the fragility of that status quo has been tested regularly since then.

Despite Egypt's long-standing mistrust of Hamas -- based on the Palestinian group's links to the Muslim Brotherhood -- Cairo has regularly sent delegations to the Gaza Strip.

But beyond a ceasefire with Israel, reconciliation between Hamas and rival Palestinian faction Fatah is also essential to the success of Egypt's intervention, according to the Egyptian diplomatic source.

The Fatah-run Palestinian Authority headed by president Mahmud Abbas has semi-autonomy in parts of the occupied West Bank, but lost control of Gaza to Hamas in a near-civil war between the two in 2007.

On Saturday, Abbas went to Egypt to discuss "the dangers posed to the Palestinian cause" with Sisi, according to a statement by the Egyptian presidency.

Just as with attempts to bridge the gap between Hamas and Israel, mediation between the two Palestinian factions has not yet yielded convincing results, said Gold.

But Egypt's efforts have prevented the situation from deteriorating, he added.

In October 2017, in a rare show for the media, Egypt's intelligence service celebrated the signing of a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah.

But that deal failed to yield concrete results on the ground.

So "there is not really reason for Egypt to highlight its involvement until ... (it) has produced a successful outcome", said Gold.