Finally, after many attempts, Egypt has agreed to allowing the head of the Hamas Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, to leave its lands, after holding talks with its senior security officials. They have allowed Haniyeh to carry out a regional tour, including Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, Lebanon, and possibly Iran, among other countries. This comes despite the fact that Egypt has refused, more than once, to allow him to take this tour, fearing his visit to Iran due to the Saudi and Israeli pressures on Egypt.
The following lines discuss Haniyeh’s new tour around the region, what he will discuss, his agenda and files – the truce with Israel and the Palestinian elections – and why Egypt has allowed him to conduct his tour this time, after having refused many times before. I will also discuss which countries he will visit, how the tour affects the strengthening of Hamas’s relations with Egypt and the region’s countries, the accuracy of the information regarding Haniyeh living abroad for many months, as well as the truth behind Egypt’s request for him not to visit Iran, due to the pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia.
On 2 December, Haniyeh left the Gaza Strip to Egypt, on a visit that was supposed to last a few days, to hold extensive discussions with Egyptian intelligence on the future of the security in Gaza, to stop the Israeli attacks against Palestinians, on holding Palestinian elections, achieving reconciliation and ending the division.
It was surprising that Haniyeh ended his intensive dialogue with Egyptian officials, including the intelligence minister, Abbas Kamel, heading to Cairo International Airport to start a regional and international tour, instead of the Rafah crossing back to Gaza, as was customary in his many visits to Egypt over the past years. It was most surprising due to the fact that in recent years, Hamas has made several formal requests to Egypt to allow Haniyeh to execute this tour, but the requests were not granted.
This current tour by Haniyeh may be of exceptional importance because, since his election as head of the Hamas Political Bureau in May 2017, he has not made any foreign tours, with his visits being limited only to Egypt . These visits took place in September 2017, February 2018, May 2018 and February 2019, during which he discussed easing the suffering of the besieged Gaza Strip and their bilateral relations. However, his last tour before leading Hamas lasted five months, between September 2016 and January 2017, and included Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
From time to time, Hamas circles have disclosed that Haniyeh would conduct a foreign tour including Arab and Muslim countries, such as Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Algeria, alongside Lebanon, Kuwait, Mauritania, Malaysia, Indonesia and Morocco, but at the last minute, the tour did not take place. Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, even announced in late December 2018, that Haniyeh would visit Moscow in January 2019, in response to their invitation, but the visit did not occur due to the Egyptian veto.
In the past, Hamas has not given a clear and specific explanation for the repeated postponements of Haniyeh’s tours, and it has not accused anyone of preventing it. This is so as not to strain relations with any party, especially Egypt, because the movement seeks to restore its regional relations. Therefore, it favoured silent diplomacy with these parties to facilitate Haniyeh’s tours, which were postponed several times, despite the importance of these tours, whether to arrange the movement’s files, to meet its branches abroad or to hold meetings with other factions in a number of Arab and Muslim countries.
I worked tirelessly to obtain reactions from Hamas regarding the repeated Egyptian rejection of Haniyeh’s departure to regional and international tours, and the reason for this recent approval. However, the movement’s leaders and speakers have expressed clear reservations about giving a convincing explanation. This leads to employing our own diligence to attempt to identify the reasons behind Haniyeh’s tours not taking place.
The Israeli escalation against Gaza, from time to time, is a primary reason for Haniyeh’s desire to remain in Gaza and to follow its developments. A second reason is the security situation in Sinai, and the inability to secure a safe exit route from Gaza to Egypt. While the third reason is related to the internal conditions of some countries that have postponed, not cancelled, the visits for some time. A fourth reason is Egypt’s stalling to give Hamas the final approval.
There have been increasing Palestinian predictions that Cairo’s prevention of Haniyeh from organising a regional, and perhaps international tour for over two years, lies in the fact that it is not an Egyptian decision. There are beliefs that these are Israeli, American and Saudi decisions, as all of these parties are relying on Egypt to restrict Haniyeh’s movements and limit him to Gaza because his visits to Qatar, Iran, and Turkey harm Israel. Meanwhile, keeping Hamas leaders abroad and distributing them among several countries, gives them ease of movement, rather than their concentration in Gaza, and it gives Egypt the right to place a veto on the travel of its leaders.
Preventing Haniyeh from his regional tour aims to restrict Hamas from strengthening its legitimacy in front of the region and the international community, while the Arab states, with Israeli-American agreement, put pressure on Hamas and suffocate it by boycotting it, politically and diplomatically. They also pressure other countries to prevent them from meeting with Hamas, with the exception of a few countries that have deviated from the US. There has also been major diplomatic efforts made by the Palestinian Authority to prevent Haniyeh from visiting some countries, such as Russia, for example.
The repeated postponement of Haniyeh’s tour represents a model for making Hamas, again, forcibly pay the price for Arab disputes. Every country is seeking to make the movement close to it, and far from its opponents, despite Hamas’s rejection of this political action, because it does not want to be in anyone’s pocket.
It is increasingly clear that Hamas is paying these prices just by looking at Haniyeh’s expected agenda, in the event that he can organise his foreign tour. The tour includes Qatar and Turkey first, who share poor relations with Egypt and near-complete estrangement. This may allow Egypt to justify their prevention of Haniyeh’s tour, because their control of major Palestinian issues, such as the international national reconciliation or the relationship with Israel, gives them strong cards of influence, both regionally and internationally.
Consequently, denying Haniyeh access to these capitals, makes Hamas, at least in Cairo’s view, immune to any regional external pressures that disturb the Egyptian political track of the Palestinian cause. This is despite the fact that Hamas continuously asserts that it has its own policy, and that it is not affected by intimidation nor pressure from any country.
Egypt’s recent approval of Haniyeh’s foreign tour, after continuous refusal and rejection, does not hide its desire to seek to impose its guidance on Hamas, determining who it visits and who it boycotts. This did not happen with the other countries that the movement has dealt with, such as Jordan, Syria and Qatar.
Today, after Haniyeh’s tour commenced, Hamas hopes it results in an improvement of its regional relations, developing friendly ties with allied countries and mending the tension and estrangement with other countries. The movement wants its leader to visit certain countries to obtain financial support and closer political relations, although countries influencing Egypt, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, have a firm hostility with the countries that Haniyeh intends to visit, and they do not want to give them a card to interfere in the Palestinian cause, by meeting with the leader of Hamas. They are seeking to prevent him from visiting these countries.
In this round, which has just begun, we are hearing frequent news that the Egyptian approval of Haniyeh’s foreign tour came after stipulation that he should not visit Iran, in particular. This is a significant request in the political relations between the parties, and does not imply wise diplomacy. However, it is clear that the Egyptian request is accompanied by Israeli and Saudi’s insistence to deny Tehran any foothold in the Palestinian arena, that may be strengthened by Haniyeh’s supposed meetings with Tehran’s leaders, who are locked in an invisible struggle with Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
It is still unknown whether Haniyeh will respond to the supposed Egyptian request, because it hurts the independence of the movement’s decision, and may negatively affect its relationship with its most important ally, Iran, if he does not visit it. This is especially true if he visits a number of other countries in the region, and refrains from visiting Iran, rendering Hamas’s position very difficult. Its decision will be sensitive and probably costly either way, whether it responds to Egypt’s request or chooses to ignore it.
In the same context, it does not seem that Haniyeh will appear to be hasty to return from his foreign tour. Predictions from inside Hamas are that he will remain abroad for several months, to conduct internal discussions with the movement, for foreign discussions with friends and allies and accomplish some of the leadership tasks that only he can complete.
Perhaps this issue, again, indicates the suitability that part of the Hamas leadership remains outside of the Palestinian territories, away from the siege and restrictions of movement – something that the current Hamas leadership may not have paid attention to when it placed all its political and military leaders in the Gaza Strip. This has put the movement, and its leaders, under the mercy of the Egyptian decision-maker, which allows Hamas to travel when relations are good, but when there is tension, it closes the Rafah crossing until further notice.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.