Egypt intelligence chief in Palestinian territories as Cairo role rises

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi is headed to Cairo while Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel is travelling to Israel.
Sunday 30/05/2021
A file picture of Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Major General Abbas Kamel during a meeting with the Egyptian president at the Presidential Palace in the capital Cairo. (AFP)
A file picture of Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Major General Abbas Kamel during a meeting with the Egyptian president at the Presidential Palace in the capital Cairo. (AFP)

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories--Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel is expected in the occupied Palestinian territories Sunday, a Palestinian minister said, after an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire ended a bloody confrontation between Israel and Gaza’s rulers Hamas.

Kamel was set to meet with Palestinian leadership, Palestinian civil affairs minister Hussein al-Sheikh said on Twitter, following the truce on May 21 that ended 11 days of deadly exchange of fire between Israel and armed Palestinian groups that ravaged the besieged coastal enclave.

“Abbas Kamel arrives today in Palestine to consult with the Palestinian leadership on the latest developments after the recent aggression and its repercussions,” Sheikh said on Twitter.

He would also “discuss what Jerusalem and its sanctities are exposed to, and the Gaza reconstruction, and the Palestinian national dialogue,” Sheikh added.

Israeli public radio reported that Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi was headed to Cairo, and that Kamel was travelling to Israel.

Egypt’s foreign ministry confirmed Israel’s top diplomat was visiting Cairo.

Palestinians have been politically divided between Hamas and its rival Fatah, but analysts say the latest escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has served to unite the geographically fragmented Palestinian community in a way not seen in years.

The flare-up was the result of increased tensions in Jerusalem, including over Israeli security forces cracking down on Palestinians inside the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site, which is also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount.

Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has pledged $500 million to help reconstruction efforts in the densely populated Gaza Strip, which was pummelled by Israeli air strikes.

Israeli strikes on the enclave killed 248 Palestinians, including 66 children, the Gaza health ministry says.

Rockets and other fire from Gaza claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child and an Arab-Israeli teenager, medics say.

 Egyptian role rising 

Egypt’s work to broker and secure a truce in the Gaza Strip this month has thrust it into the diplomatic spotlight.

The efforts have earned Cairo recognition at a time when it was struggling to strike a rapport with US President Joe Biden’s administration amid differences on human rights, and to make progress on its top foreign policy goal – a deal to regulate an Ethiopian dam that Egypt sees as a major threat to its supplies of Nile water.

While Cairo has mediated during previous rounds of violence between Israel and the Palestinians through its ties with both sides, analysts and diplomats say its efforts have been more visible than in recent years.

As the week-old ceasefire took hold between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist faction that controls Gaza, Egyptian security delegations shuttled between Tel Aviv and the Palestinian territories.

Next week, Palestinian figures including Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh are due to start visits to Cairo to further shore up the truce, Egyptian security sources said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry arrives with delegation and is welcomed by Chairman of the Palestinian Civil Affairs Commission Hussein al-Sheikh, in Ramallah, May 24, 2021. (AFP)

“There is a more active effort by Egypt and President Sisi. It was clear throughout the 11 days of war,” a Hamas official told Reuters.

Though Hamas has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed and subject to a severe crackdown in Egypt, Cairo has well-established intelligence ties with the group.

Because of the importance Egypt attaches to security on the border between its Sinai Peninsula and Gaza, it is “super pragmatic” about its dealings with the Palestinian faction, said one diplomat.

For Egypt and Sisi, who enjoyed good relations with Trump, one achievement of the ceasefire push has been the sudden resumption of contact with the White House.

After an awkward silence that had lasted since Biden’s inauguration in January, the US leader spoke twice with Sisi in five days.

However, US and Egyptian reengagement around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be limited by the current lack of prospects for a peace process, analysts say.

“This is mostly conflict management rather than conflict resolution,” said Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian foreign minister.

In the past, “our engagement was on peace process issues as well as on the security issues in Gaza when things broke out. Presently there are no serious peace process issues.”

Egypt, which receives some $1.3 billion of US military aid annually, has also faced strong criticism from US Democrats over its human rights record. After a visit to Cairo this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said human rights remained “very much on the agenda”.

But Egypt has learned to wait out bumps in its relationship with Washington and after proving itself over Gaza had won some breathing space on rights, said Hafsa Halawa, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

“Egypt has become a patient foreign policy actor, and that really comes from the core institutional belief that Egypt is too big to fail,” – a concept Egypt sees the United States and other allies as sharing, she said.