On January 4, 2019, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas visited Egypt, where he met with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Prior to this visit, relations between Hamas and Fatah showed signs of a severe deterioration that erased Egypt’s latest efforts to mediate a reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. One recent example of the decline occurred when a team of PA personnel arrived at the Rafah Crossing on January 8 to administer it, as required by earlier understandings, but they were forced to leave.
Before meeting with Sisi, Abbas held an open discussion with the Egyptian media that did not take the form of a press conference. He was very candid in his statements, giving a very gloomy prospect of the Palestinian problem. According to one version, later confirmed to me by a source in Ramallah, the PA chairman even said that he can’t see a Palestinian state materializing within the next 15 years.
How does Abbas view the circumstances surrounding the Palestinian problem? First of all, there are too many schisms and infighting within the Arab countries that override Arab support for the Palestinian cause.
Another cause for Abbas’ gloom is American policy, which Abbas perceives as completely biased in favor of Israel. In this regard, it is significant that the PA chairman concentrated on the Jerusalem issue rather than Palestinian refugees. It is not likely that Abbas “forgot” about the refugees, because he also avoided mentioning them in any of the well-prepared speeches he recently gave in Ramallah. Why the omission? We do not know at this stage – but the phenomenon is worth noting.
Mass Arrests of Fatah Personnel in Gaza
Maybe the reason for the PA chairman’s low-spirited mood was what happened in Gaza earlier the same day – on Saturday, January 5, when Hamas cracked down on Fatah activists in Gaza and arrested 300 of them. Earlier, during the previous week, they beat and humiliated icons of the Fatah leadership in Gaza.
These arrests continued on Sunday and Monday, January 6 and 7.
On Friday night, January 4, Hamas activists stormed and destroyed the PA TV studios in Gaza, and on Monday January 7, they prevented a PA TV team from covering an event on the streets.
For this reason, when Abbas began his meeting with Sisi, there was nothing to encourage a fruitful discussion and, according to our PA sources, nothing of any substance occurred during their encounter.
So, why did the meeting take place at all?
It is important to remember that Sisi avoided Abbas for a long time, and he also refused to coordinate his speech at the United Nations with the PA chairman.
The change in the Egyptian approach might be a result of Abbas’ recent statements in which he supported Prince Mohammad Bin Salman al-Saud (known as MBS) in the scandal surrounding the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi toward the end of 2018. Abbas was one of the first Arab public figures to voice any support for Saudi Arabia in this regard. In addition, Abbas spoke out against Iran, and the response to these gestures was the invitation to Cairo.
A Palestinian senior source told us that Sisi’s motive in inviting Abbas to Cairo was to show that despite its good relations with Hamas, Egypt still considers the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah as the legal representative of the Palestinian people.
Egypt still believes in reconciliation between Hamas and the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority, but according to my sources, Abbas told Sisi that the only way toward the reunification of these organizations is to coerce Hamas forcibly into a reconciliation agreement. He made it clear to the Egyptian president that he would not backtrack from his decision to intensify punitive measures against Gaza.
Tremors in Gaza
Hamas’ main challenge in Gaza is public unrest, which Hamas is trying to divert toward the borders with Israel. The fear of turmoil on the street is behind Hamas cracking down on Fatah cadres and PA TV. Hamas is concerned that Fatah, under the cover of its upcoming anniversary day and Arafat’s memorial, will try to channel the anger of the Palestinian people toward Hamas’ rule.
As for the evacuation of PA personnel from the Rafah Crossing, Palestinian sources report that Hamas pressed the PA officers to hand over any customs fees they levied to Hamas instead of to Ramallah. This caused the PA personnel to fear for their safety and to abandon their positions.
Another concern for Mahmoud Abbas was Hamas’ progress in building a new Palestinian front with veteran Palestinian organizations, such as the Popular Front and the Democratic Front. This is why the PA chairman referred to Hamas specifically as “Muslim Brothers.” In other words, Hamas are not Palestinians and do not belong to the Palestinian project. Therefore, any new organization that competes with the PLO/PA is not legitimate and has no grounds for challenging it.
As well as his encounter with the Egyptian president, Mahmoud Abbas met with Coptic Pope Tawadros II to discuss the issue of Jerusalem. As mentioned earlier, Abbas focused on Jerusalem rather than the refugees, and the reason for this preference is not apparent to us at this stage.
In conclusion, this week’s meeting with the Egyptian president was one of Abbas’ saddest visits to Egypt. Abbas was extremely pessimistic about the prospects of the Palestinian project. Sisi understood his mood, and we believe that he saw little purpose in trying to achieve anything with the PA chairman.
Against the backdrop of this meeting, Hamas continues to crack down on Fatah personnel and media to avert a Fatah scheme to exploit upcoming events to mobilize demonstrations against Hamas.