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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Egypt and Palestine leaders meet in Cairo amid likely Gaza shake-up

Officials close to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said he met with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi to seek clarifications on what appears to be an emerging power-sharing agreement between Gaza's Hamas rulers and an exiled Abbas rival, Mohammed Dahlan

An Egyptian security guard is seen near the border with Gaza on July 8, 2017. Mohammed Saber / EPA
An Egyptian security guard is seen near the border with Gaza on July 8, 2017. Mohammed Saber / EPA

Egyptian and Palestinian leaders met in Cairo on Sunday amid signs of a rapprochement between Cairo and Hamas that could shake up Gaza's political landscape and sideline the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Officials close to Mr Abbas said the Palestinian leader met with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi to seek clarifications on what appears to be an emerging power-sharing agreement between Gaza's Hamas rulers and an exiled Abbas rival, Mohammed Dahlan. Mr Dahlan, who currently lives in the UAE, was a former leading figure in Mr Abbas's Fatah movement.

Under the apparent deal — parts of which have been confirmed by other parties involved — Hamas would retain control over Gaza's security, while Mr Dahlan would eventually return to Gaza and handle its foreign relations.

Neither leader made any comments to the media after their meeting in Cairo, and a statement by Egypt's presidential spokesman stuck to generalities. The two leaders, the statement said, discussed the latest developments in the Palestinians' bid for statehood and ways to revive the peace process.

Mr Dahlan was a key Fatah figure behind the Fatah-Hamas street clashes that erupted after Hamas' victory in parliamentary elections in 2006, which eventually led to the violent takeover of Gaza by the group a year later.

Mr Dahlan and Hamas have been bitter enemies, but their interests began to align in recent months. Mr Dahlan's desire to return from exile and one day succeed Mr Abbas has coincided with Hamas' growing desperation as the Palestinian president applies greater financial pressure on Gaza.

The emerging understandings between Egypt, Hamas and Mr Dahlan could pose a serious political threat to Mr Abbas and the prospects of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — the lands Israel captured in the 1967 war. A Palestinian "mini state" in Gaza could undermine the official state sought by Mr Abbas and others within pre-1967 lines.

If implemented, such understandings would likely help ease Gaza's decade of isolation, but would also deepen the Israeli-enforced disconnect between Gaza and the West Bank.

Egypt has long accused Hamas of providing sanctuary, as well as supporting, Islamic militants fighting its security forces in the turbulent north of the Sinai Peninsula, a region that borders Gaza and Israel. For Hamas's decade-long rule of Gaza, Egypt has joined Israel in a blockade of the Palestinian territory.

But relations between Egypt and Hamas appear to have recently thawed.

Hamas officials said the two sides have negotiated security arrangements for the Gaza-Egypt border to ensure that militants operating in Sinai don't use Gaza as a refuge. In line with the agreement, Hamas has begun creating a security buffer zone along Gaza's border with Egypt. In return, Cairo has provided Gaza's rulers with fuel for its power station, easing the rolling blackouts that have for long fed discontent among the territory's two million residents.

The Egyptian fuel shipments appear to have undermined the stepped-up financial pressure on Hamas by Mr Abbas. The Palestinian president had hoped such measures, including subsidy cuts and a reduction in payments for Gaza electricity, would force Hamas to cede ground in Gaza and gradually turn the population against the ruling group.

Speaking ahead of the meeting between Mr El Sisi and Mr Abbas in Cairo, an Egyptian diplomat briefed on the issues said Egypt's president was expected to tell the Palestinian leader that Cairo cannot keep Gaza sealed off forever, and that it needs to attend to the territory's needs. He said Mr El Sisi was also expected to tell Mr Abbas that he was welcome to play a senior role in Gaza.

The officials close to Mr Abbas said they had only heard of the Dahlan-Hamas and Egypt-Hamas agreements second-hand, increasing their concerns.

In remarks on Saturday, Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh lauded the new security co-ordination with Egypt. Speaking a day after ISIL militants killed at least 23 Egyptian soldiers in the deadliest attack in Sinai in two years, he said Hamas was "carrying out intensive measures on the border with Egypt to prevent any infiltration" into Gaza after the attack.

Separately, Mr Dahlan and Hamas reached several understandings, according to officials on both sides. Mr Abbas's aides said such contacts would only have been possible with Egypt's blessing. Mr Dahlan went into exile after falling out with the Palestinian president in 2010 and has since forged strong ties with Egypt, as well as the UAE.

The officials said they were told that as a first step, Mr Dahlan was expected to disburse Dh$50 million (Dh183.7m) in UAE funds to the families of those killed in the Hamas-Fatah street fighting of 2006 and 2007. One of his main lieutenants, Samir Masharawi, an exiled Fatah leader from Gaza, was to return to the territory to start implementing the deal.