On 2 December last year, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh left the Gaza Strip through the Rafah Crossing on a visit that was supposed to last for a few days. He was to hold extensive discussions with Egyptian intelligence officials on the situation in Gaza; ways to stop the Israeli attacks against the Palestinians; the holding of Palestinian elections; and reconciliation with Fatah.
It was a surprise that Haniyeh ended his talks and headed to Cairo International Airport for an international tour instead of going straight back to Rafah and Gaza, as has been the case with his many visits to Egypt over the past few years. Hamas has made several requests to the Egyptians to allow Haniyeh to go for this tour but they were all turned down.
The tour that the Egyptians apparently agreed to has included visits to Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, Lebanon and Iran. This is despite the fact that Saudi and Israeli pressure on Egypt has always blocked permission for any tour that might see the head of the Hamas Political Bureau go to Tehran.
Despite visiting Egypt in 2017, twice in 2018 and again in 2019, this is the first time that Haniyeh has gone further since his election as leader in May 2017. Prior to that, from September 2016 to January 2017, he was in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. When Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov announced in late December 2018 that Haniyeh would visit Moscow in January last year at his government’s invitation, Egypt vetoed the trip. Other tours have been mooted but not taken place, usually being cancelled at the last minute.
Hamas has not given a clear explanation for the repeated postponements of Haniyeh’s tours, and has not accused anyone of blocking them. The movement does not want to strain its relations with anyone, especially Egypt; on the contrary, it wants to build relations. Silent diplomacy has thus been preferred to facilitate Haniyeh’s visits during which he can discuss the various portfolios, meet its staff and members abroad and hold meetings with other organisations in Arab and Muslim countries.
Israeli offensives against Gaza are one important reason why the Hamas leader has more or less stayed in his home territory — he was born and still lives in Gaza’s Beach Refugee Camp — to follow all developments there. Another is the security situation in Sinai, which is generally dangerous to drive across. Yet another is related to the domestic situation in some countries which have postponed, rather than cancelled, his visits.
Egyptian stalling over permission for Haniyeh to travel cannot be ruled out, of course. Many Palestinians believe that it is not actually Cairo’s decision; that it is the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia pulling the strings on this, because if Haniyeh goes to Qatar, Iran and Turkey, there is potential harm to Israel. Having Hamas leaders distributed around several countries rather than concentrated in one place such as Gaza also makes it harder for Egypt to veto any travel and the development of important contacts.
Preventing Ismail Haniyeh from travelling beyond Egypt is intended to make it harder for Hamas to boost its legitimacy regionally and further afield. The Arab states, with the agreement of the US and Israel, put pressure on Hamas by boycotting it politically and diplomatically. They also put pressure on other countries to stop meetings with the movement and its officials. There has also been major diplomatic efforts made by the Palestinian Authority to prevent Haniyeh from visiting some countries, such as Russia, for example.
Repeated postponement of its leader’s tours is a model for making Hamas pay the price for Arab disputes. Every country wants to bring the movement closer, while taking it away from its opponents’ sphere of influence. Hamas, however, rejects such political games because it does not want to be in anyone’s pocket.
Egypt, of course, is estranged from Qatar and Turkey, which were on Haniyeh’s itinerary, which is why, until December, Cairo was so against allowing any tour to take place. Denying Haniyeh access to these capitals makes Hamas, in Cairo’s view, immune to any regional pressures that might disturb the Egyptian role in Palestine. In any case, though, Hamas insists that it has its own policy and is not affected by intimidation or pressure from any country.
Even though Egypt approved Haniyeh’s tour in December, that did not disguise Cairo’s desire to impose its guidance on Hamas with regard to where he goes or does not go. This never happened when the movement was based in Jordan, Syria and Qatar.
Hamas hopes that its leader’s tour results in improved regional relations, further developments in its links with allied countries and less tension and estrangement with other capitals. The movement needs financial and political support, but the governments which influence Egypt, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, are hostile towards the potentially supportive countries and do not want to give them a card to interfere in the Palestinian cause by meeting with Haniyeh. This is particularly the case with a visit to Iran, which Tel Aviv and Riyadh want to keep away from the issue.
Ismail Haniyeh appears to be reluctant to return to besieged Gaza — which wouldn’t be sensible in any case in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic — and officials within Hamas predict that he will remain abroad for several more months to finish the work that only he, as leader, can do. This suggests strongly that it is highly appropriate for at least some of the senior leadership of the movement to stay outside its Gaza stronghold, beyond the confines of the siege and restrictions that it imposes. This is something that the current Hamas leadership may not have considered when it elected Gaza residents to its senior political and military positions. The decision has put the movement and its leaders at the mercy of the Egyptians, who open or close the Rafah Crossing and control who uses it whenever it suits them to do so.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.