Exiled Hamas leaders enter Gaza to discuss truce with Israel

Hamas officials said guarantees were given that their delegation to Gaza would not be targeted by Israel.
Friday 03/08/2018
Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh shakes hands with Hamas Deputy Chief Saleh al-Arouri, in Gaza City August 2. (Hamas Chief Media Office via Reuters)
Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh shakes hands with Hamas Deputy Chief Saleh al-Arouri, in Gaza City August 2. (Hamas Chief Media Office via Reuters)

LONDON — Gaza’s ruling Hamas said exiled members of its decision-making political bureau have entered the territory for high-level discussions about an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire deal with Israel.

The Hamas website Safa said Friday this marks the first time all members of the political bureau have come together in Gaza. It says the delegation arriving from exile late Thursday included Saleh Arouri, a founder of the Hamas military wing wanted by Israel.

Hamas officials have said guarantees were given that the delegation would not be targeted by Israel and that progress has been made toward a truce that could pave the way for a UN-led reconstruction of Gaza.

A senior Hamas official said Thursday that Egypt is trying to broker a broad cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas.

Repeated cease-fire deals over the years collapsed, but there were signs of possible momentum toward a new agreement, after weeks of escalation along the Gaza-Israel frontier.

“Permitting a delegation with this level to come to Gaza is a clear sign that there are first of all guarantees that the delegation will not be targeted by the Israelis, and a sign that there are serious meetings to be held in Gaza,” said Bassem Naim, a Gaza-based Hamas official.

He said Hamas officials would try to “conclude the progress that has been made on files such as the truce,” as well as a UN-led rebuilding of Gaza and possible reconciliation between Hamas and its domestic political rival, West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Naim said the Hamas leaders would also talk about a possible prisoner swap with Israel.

Two other senior Hamas officials confirmed the outlines of the deal proposed by Egypt. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide details of closed-door negotiations.

It’s not clear what role Abbas would play in Gaza, if any. He has said in the past that he would only resume responsibility for Gaza if Hamas agrees to hand over all authority there, including over security. Hamas has been unwilling to do so.

Gaza has endured a crippling border blockade by Israel and Egypt, imposed after Hamas seized the territory in 2007. In recent months, Hamas has become more desperate amid mounting financial pressure, including from Abbas. Gaza’s 2 million people have had to contend with blockade-linked electricity shortages, rising unemployment and growing poverty.

Despite renewed cease-fire efforts, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that, starting Thursday, he is halting shipments of fuel and natural gas to Gaza in response to incendiary balloons that have targeted southern Israel.

Israel also suspended fuel shipments to Gaza temporarily in July for similar reasons.

Incendiary balloons and kites, many set off during border protests organized by Hamas, have caused fires that have devastated southern Israel’s farmland and forests.

Since late March, thousands of Gaza residents have participated in frequent protests along Israel’s perimeter fence, in part to try to break the blockade.

In the past four months, 155 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed by Israeli fire, including at least 117 in protests near the fence, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry and the Gaza rights group Al Mezan. 

Others, including Hamas militants, have been killed in other incidents, including Israeli airstrikes. Last month, an Israeli soldier was killed by sniper fire from Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cancelled a South American trip planned for next week due to the situation around the Gaza Strip, an Israeli official said on Thursday.

Netanyahu will convene his security cabinet on Sunday to discuss the emerging deal for long-term peace in Gaza, a second Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On Sunday, Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said on Twitter that he held “productive meetings” with Egyptian officials in efforts to de-escalate Gaza tensions and resolve humanitarian issues.

“The devil is always in the details but we are #movingforward in the interest of #peace,” Mladenov said.

Mladenov said he had also held meeting with Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank.

Meanwhile, US officials said the Trump administration is staffing up a Middle East policy team at the White House in anticipation of unveiling its long awaited but largely mysterious Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

The National Security Council last week began approaching other agencies seeking volunteers to join the team, which will work for President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace pointmen Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, according to the officials. 
The team, which is being set up to organize the peace plan’s public presentation and any negotiations that may ensue, will comprise three units: one concentrating on its political and security details, one on its significant economic focus and one on strategic communications, the officials said.

The creation of a White House team is the first evidence in months that a plan is advancing. Although Trump officials have long promised the most comprehensive package ever put forward toward resolving the conflict, the emerging plan has not been described with even a small amount of detail by Kushner, Greenblatt or any other official.

Timing on the release of the plan remains undecided. The State Department, Pentagon, intelligence agencies and Congress have been asked to detail personnel to the team for six months to a year, according to the officials, who were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The agencies declined to comment but an NSC official said that Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy for international negotiations, “are expanding their team and the resources available as they finalize the details and rollout strategy of the peace initiative.”

White House officials say the plan will focus on pragmatic details, rather than top-line concepts, that will be able to easier win public support.

(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)