Will a Hamas-Egypt status quo over the Rafah crossing break Israel’s negotiating leverage?
By Baruch Yedid, TPS
Negotiations for the exchange of prisoners between Israel and Hamas are ongoing, but another period of time is required due to “procrastination on Israel’s part” and its rejection of Hamas’ positions, Hamas sources say.
This weekend, Padua Barghouti, the wife of a Fatah arch-terrorist Marwan Barghouti who is serving five life sentences in prison in Israel, met with Ismail Haniya, the Hamas leader, who is in Cairo alongside a large Hamas delegation for meetings with Egyptian intelligence officials.
Fatah sources told TPS that Bargouthi is expected to remain in Cairo until the end of this month and to closely monitor contacts for a prisoner exchange deal.
According to them, Barghouti, who was already scheduled to meet with Haniya about two months ago in Cairo, received an explicit promise from the Hamas leader that her husband will be at the top of the list of prisoners in any upcoming deal.
Fatah sources say that the contacts are quite advanced and so is the matter of Barghouti’s release, while a source in the Hamas foreign leadership told the TPS that Egypt has sent a message to the Palestinian Authority that it should not oppose the release of Marwan Barghouti if a deal is formed.
Barghouti is a staunch opponent of PA head Mahmoud Abbas and his entourage and has claimed in recent years that the PA has refused to allow him to be released from prison.
Fatah sources also say that Hamas has pledged to bring about the release of Ahmad Sa’adat, a senior Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) figure behind the assassination of Israeli Minister Rehavam Ze’evi.
The sources emphasized that if Hamas succeeds in bringing about the release of senior Hamas and Fatah figures, this will greatly strengthen its position on the Palestinian street and severely damage Abbas’ status.
Meanwhile, the list of prisoners that Hamas claims it will demand their release from Israel is becoming crowded.
Over the weekend, Hussam Badran, a Hamas leader in Qatar, said in an interview with Al Jazeera that the six prisoners who had recently escaped from Gilboa Prison would also be at the top of the list in any upcoming deal.
The daughter of Fuad Shubaki, Yasser Arafat’s associate and the person behind the arms smuggling on the ship “Karin A,” also met with Ismail Haniyah in Cairo and asked him to take care of her father’s case.
A Hamas operative told TPS that there is nothing new in Hamas’ position and it also insists on the release of “heavy prisoners” like Abdullah Barghouti, who is serving 66 life sentences, Ibrahim Hamed, who is serving 54 life sentences, and prisoners among Arabs with Israeli citizenship, prisoners living in Arab countries, and above all, the prisoners who were released in the Shalit deal but were re-imprisoned by Israel during Operation Protective Edge.
The Saudi newspaper A Sharq Al Awsat reported that in the coming days an Israeli delegation will arrive in Egypt for talks on a truce in the Gaza Strip and a prisoner exchange deal, and in the meantime, a Hamas presence will remain in Cairo. Meanwhile, Hamas is working on a wide-ranging media effort to pressure Israel to promote a prisoner-of-prisoner exchange deal.
Sources in Hamas told the Al-Quds newspaper that Israel sees Hamas’ demands as excessive, and on the other hand, Hamas told Egypt that it would not go for any deal that did not include the heavy prisoners. The sources also told the Al-Quds newspaper that Israel has signaled that it agrees to the release of Fuad Shubaki and Ahmad Sa’adat.
Meanwhile, senior Hamas figures say that so far they have managed to break the Israeli demand conditioning the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip with the release of the two Israeli citizens and the bodies of two IDF soldiers held by Hamas. Sources in Hamas say that Egypt is expected to soon re-regulate traffic procedures at the Rafah crossing, adding that an Egyptian delegation will soon arrive in the Gaza Strip to discuss this issue.
An international delegation is expected to arrive to meet and discuss on the requirements for the rehabilitation of the Strip.
A Palestinian source claims that “it seems that the prisoner exchange deal needs another period of time, mainly due to Israel’s refusal to allow the release of heavy prisoners, but at the same time it seems that the Gaza Strip is progressing well and Egypt is signaling to Hamas that reconstruction work is closer”.
Naji Sarhan, head of the Gaza Rehabilitation Committee, told local media that Egypt had pledged to give priority to the restoration of the buildings destroyed in Operation Guardian of the Walls in May and to allow the introduction of building materials into Gaza through Egypt.
Egypt is also expected to approve the transfer of some of the goods that Israel prevents from transferring into Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing, due to their dual-use and the possibility that they will be used for terrorist purposes, and also facilitate the movement of businessmen from Gaza to Cairo and other Arab countries, according to several sources.
The sources add that Egypt will lower the transportation prices between Egypt and Gaza and expand the permit for the transfer of all types of materials, including building materials and large quantities of iron, and also approve extensive agricultural exports from Gaza through its territory.