Egyptian delegation seeks to defuse tensions in Gaza

Egyptian delegation seeks to defuse tensions in Gaza
Israeli border policemen move away from a burning vehicle during clashes with Palestinians at a checkpoint in Beit El near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP)
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Updated 14 February 2020

Egyptian delegation seeks to defuse tensions in Gaza

Egyptian delegation seeks to defuse tensions in Gaza
  • Israel has escalated its threats against factions in Gaza

GAZA CITY: Since US President Donald Trump announced his Israel-Palestine peace plan on Jan. 28 — which he referred to as the “Deal of the Century” —  tension in the Gaza Strip has escalated rapidly, with the Gazan side firing rockets and releasing incendiary balloons across the border, and Israel shelling Gaza by night.

Over the past few days, Israel has escalated its threats against factions in Gaza, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Neftali Bennett warning Hamas that Israel would launch a full military assault unless the rockets and balloons sent from Gaza stopped.

Many observers believe that Hamas is seeking to pressure Netanyahu — who is preparing for elections early next month — into easing the siege imposed on Gaza 13 years ago. At the moment, that tactic does not appear to be working, however. 

At the beginning of this month, Israel stopped the entry of cement into Gaza, reduced the number of permits available to Palestinian merchants to enter the West Bank and Israel, and shrunk Gaza’s fishing zone from 15 nautical miles to 10.

In an attempt to prevent further escalation of the situation — potentially into a fourth Intifada — an Egyptian security delegation, headed by the director of the Palestinian Department in Egyptian Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Abdel Khaliq, visited the enclave on Monday to meet with Hamas and major Palestinian forces.

A Palestinian leader who participated in the meeting told Arab News, on condition of anonymity, that the delegation carried several “Israeli messages,” the main one being the threat of a broad military operation unless the rockets and balloons stopped. 

In return, the source said, the delegation pledged that it would pressure Israel to follow up cease-fire conditions agreed with Hamas earlier — through Egyptian mediation — to ease the blockade, allow some goods to enter Gaza, increase the availability of fuel for the power station, and widen the fishing zone.

Talal Abu Zarifa, a member of the Political Bureau of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told Arab News, “The resistance factions were the ones who passed a message via the Egyptian delegation stipulating the necessity to lift the siege on Gaza and stop all forms of aggression against our people in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Jerusalem, and that more aggression will push the region to escalate.”

Since the Egyptian visit, there has been a marked decrease in the number of balloons and rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, although it has not stopped completely.

Abu Zarifa said that Egypt is “aware of the suffering” of 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, and is keen not to see the situation deteriorate.

Rami Abu Zubaydah, a military-affairs researcher, said, “(Israel) makes various threats regarding the launch of a broad military operation against Gaza. The intervention of the Egyptian mediator may contribute to containing the situation a little, especially since the factions and the occupation do not want to enter into a comprehensive confrontation now, if it is possible to reach an agreement ending the siege of Gaza, realizing that Netanyahu cannot implement any comprehensive agreement in light of the upcoming elections.”

Likewise, Tayseer Mohaisen, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said he did not believe the situation in Gaza would develop into all-out war, despite growing Israeli threats, because Israeli politicians are focused on the upcoming elections, and would not sanction any unpredictable military action at the moment.

Mohaisen added that he views the rocket and balloon launches from Gaza as “a limited wave of escalation aimed at demonstrating public protest against Israel’s failure to comply with the ceasefire understandings, and forcing Israel to ease the blockade.

“The Israeli army is targeting empty fields and sites in Gaza (while attempting to fool) the Israeli public into thinking they have targeted the infrastructure of Hamas,” Mohaisen told Arab News. “This means (Israel) does not want to break its security relationship with Hamas, as any war will hinder the achievement of its strategic goals.”

Commentators expect that the Egyptian security delegation will succeed in its mission, and that Israel will retract its recent measures and introduce further measures to ease the blockade.