One of the top priorities of Egyptian foreign policy is to support the Palestinian cause, said Assistant Foreign Minister Badr El-Din Zayed in a meeting Monday of the Egyptian-Palestinian Joint Committee, the first in nine years.
In a joint statement cited by Palestinian state agency WAFA, the Palestinian side expressed appreciation for the “pivotal” role Egypt has played in “ending the Palestinian divide” and “easing the Israeli siege on Palestinian land”.
The meeting on Monday comes after Palestinian rivals Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), dominated by Fatah Party which rules the West Bank, announced a reconcilliation deal last month.
The 23 April deal, which came after talks in Gaza, was followed by a breakdown of peace talks with Israel since it came at a time when final status negotiations between the Israelis and the PLO were approaching an agreed-upon 29 April deadline, and it provoked the ire of the Israelis, which view Hamas as a terrorist group.
Mohamed Gomaa, an expert on Palestinian Affairs from Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said the timing is significant for both the peace talks with Israel and the Palestinian reconcilliation, given the strategic cooperation between Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.
The Egyptian side said in the statement that it supports the Palestinian reconcilliation deal, which “reinforces the unity of the Palestinian territories under one Palestinian state”. Gomaa said that the end of the Palestinian divide is in Egypt’s best interest.
The deal aims to “form a government of national consensus”. Gomaa said the Palestinian Authority is interested in informing the Egyptian side on whether the government will, in fact, be formed, or if the talks will see a setback, through this meeting of the joint committee.
Both sides asserted the importance of peace talks with Israel and the American efforts to make them succeed, “rejecting the Israeli policies which undermine the process.” Specifically, they referred to Israel’s policies on “settlement, assaults on the Palestinian people, and violations on holy sites”. They called for an end to these practises and for an end to the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip.
The joint committee meeting coincided with a meeting in Doha between Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and Khaled Meshaal, political bureau chief for Hamas. It was the pair’s first meeting since they met in Cairo in January 2013, under the auspices of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
On the Palestinian side, the joint committee includes only Palestinian Authority representatives – none from Hamas. Egypt-Hamas relations have continuously deteriorated since July.
In March, an Egypt court banned the activities of Hamas in Egypt, where the group had established administrative offices. Gomaa does not expect Egypt’s stance towards Hamas to change.
“Egypt will not change the way it deals with Hamas unless Hamas changes … even under the reconcilliation,” Gomaa said.
Egyptian authorities believe that Hamas is “complicit” in the turbulence in Sinai and that it does not do enough to curb the movement of Salafi Jihadi groups across the border or is overlooking these movements.
Gomaa said that Egypt distinguishes between its relations with Hamas relations and the reconcilliation between the Palestinian rivals.
Gomaa said Egypt is only willing to deal with the Palestinian Authority and aims to see the authority controlling the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, which would reinstate what Cairo views as Palestinian legitimacy in the strip.
“Up until now, Egypt does not recognise the ‘coup’ that took place in Gaza in 2007,” he said. Hamas seized power in the strip in that year after an armed conflict with Fatah.
Gomaa said he believes Egypt currently deals with Hamas out of practicality because they share a border. This does not mean that Egypt “politically recognises” Hamas.
Since July, the Rafah border crossing, which is monitored by the Egyptian side, has been opened sporadically for a few days a time, exacerbating the humanitarian conditions inside the besieged strip.
Hamas Prime Minister of Gaza Ismail Haniyeh called in April for the border to be opened permanently to ease the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip. Gomaa believes that because Egypt does not recognise Hamas, it usually responds to such requests by telling Hamas to go ask Palestinian Authority President Abbas to make the request. In fact, often when Egypt does open the border crossing for humanitarian purposes, it does so in response to his requests.
The joint committee’s meeting on Monday is the first of two days of preparatory meetings, ahead of the committee’s meeting at the ministerial level.
The meeting was held in Cairo and was led by both Zayed and Deputy Palestinian Foreign Minister Taysir Jaradat, who said in his opening speech that the Palestinian leadership that “the Palestinian leadership highly appreciates the Egyptian initiative to reactivate the committee,” Palestine’s state news agency WAFA reported.
Gomaa said the joint committee’s meeting is also important for the Palestinian Authority because Egypt helps it gain membership to international organisations. Jaradat expressed appreciation for Egypt’s role in helping Palestine gain membership to the Greater Arab Free Trade Area.
The two sides stressed their interest in the committee convening on a regular basis to “cover and direct all activities of coordination in various fields,” the Palestinian embassy in Cairo said in a statement. Egyptian and Palestinian officials discussed reaching the “phrasing of agreements to support and strengthen the Egyptian-Palestinian relationship,” the statement read.