Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh left the Gaza Strip for Egypt on 3 February on a visit that was supposed to last for several days. It is now entering its fourth week amid leaks that he is in intensive talks with the Egyptian intelligence to allow him to leave Cairo for visits to several countries. This is despite the fact that Hamas recently made official requests to Egypt to allow its leadership to embark on a regional and international tour. These requests were turned down by the Egyptians.
Since Haniyeh’s appointment as head of Hamas’ Political Bureau in May 2017, he has not undertaken any foreign tours. His visits were limited to Egypt in September 2017; February 2018; May 2018 and February 2019. During which these visits his discussions with the Egyptians focussed on ways to ease the siege on the Gaza Strip and improve bilateral relations. His last tour before becoming Hamas leader lasted five months, from September 2016 to January 2017, and included Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Last November, Hamas officials said that Haniyeh would go on a foreign tour of several Arab and Muslim countries including: Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Algeria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Mauritania, Malaysia, Indonesia and Morocco; but the tour did not take place. On 28 December, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov announced that Haniyeh would visit Moscow on 15 January 2019, after accepting its invitation; that visit is yet to materialise.
Hamas has not given a clear and specific explanation for the repeated postponements of Haniyeh’s tours, and has not accused anyone of preventing him from conducting them in order not to strain relations with any party. The movement seeks to repair regional relations, which were damaged in recent years, causing it to opt for quiet diplomacy with those parties in order to facilitate Haniyeh’s tours.
Cairo has already rejected Haniyeh’s request to travel to Moscow in response to an invitation from the Russian government, claiming that the invitation was informal and did not include senior faction leaders. It was extended from the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies. This angered Hamas, which requested Haniyeh’s exit from Gaza to conduct a foreign tour in order to organise the movement’s affairs, meet with its structures abroad, and hold meetings with other factions in a number of Arab and Muslim countries.
I struggled to get reactions from Hamas about Egypt’s repeated refusals to allow Haniyeh to leave Gaza for regional and international tours, but the movement’s leaders and spokespeople had reservations about giving a convincing explanation.
Bassem Naim, a former health minister and a member of Hamas’ international relations office, told me “since the election of Haniyeh as head of Hamas, the movement has been making great efforts to organise a foreign tour that includes Arab, Muslim and friendly countries.”
He added that “There are three reasons preventing the tour. The first reason is Israel’s recurrent attacks on Gaza, which has obliged Haniyeh to remain in Gaza to follow up security developments. The second reason is the security situation in Sinai and the inability to secure a safe exit from Gaza to Egypt. The third reason is related to the internal affairs of some countries that pushed to postpone the visits, not cancel them.”
On 6 February, Tahir Al Nunu, Haniyeh’s advisor, announced that Haniyeh’s visit to Moscow was postponed due to the death of his brother in December and then postponed to mid-January due to a procedural setback. It was postponed a third time in February. The movement ultimately decided to send Hossam Badran and Musa Abu Marzouq, members of the Political Bureau, to participate in Moscow’s meetings with the other factions on 14 February to discuss Palestinian reconciliation.
Notwithstanding, a Hamas leader, who remained anonymous, told Alaraby Aljadeed newspaper on 5 February that Hamas asked Cairo to grant freedom of movement to the factions’ delegations to leave Gaza, which would have enabled Haniyeh to carry out his foreign tour.
There is speculation in the Palestinian political circles that Cairo’s ban on Haniyeh’s regional and international tours is due to the fact that it is not only an Egyptian decision, but it is an Israeli-American-Saudi-Egyptian decision. They are all relying on each other to keep Haniyeh in Gaza. His visit to Qatar, Iran, and Turkey would harm Israel, despite the fact that Hamas has other leaders abroad who are distributed in several countries. This allows them freedom of movement, instead of being stationed in Gaza and granting Egypt the right to veto their travels.
Moreover, the failure to enable Haniyeh to undertake his foreign tour is aimed primarily at depriving Hamas and its leaders of strengthening their legitimacy within the region and the wider international community. This is at a time when a number of Arab states are further suffocating Hamas, with Israel’s and America’s approval, either by boycotting it politically or diplomatically or pressuring different countries to prevent them from receiving Hamas. This is with the exception of a few countries that emerged from the US sphere of influence.
The official Iranian news agency Tasnim announced on 20 November that Egypt prevented Haniyeh from visiting Tehran to participate in the 32nd International Islamic Unity Conference, although his last visit to Tehran was in February 2012.
The unpleasant surprise to Hamas was expressed by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who announced on 18 February that the arrangements for Haniyeh’s visit to Moscow are no longer in place because it was postponed. This caused increased political speculation that intense diplomatic efforts were being made by the PA regarding Moscow in order not to allow this visit to occur, the preparations for which were made after an invitation from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov personally to Haniyeh, but it did not happen in the end.
It seems clear that Hamas is paying the price of the growing Arab differences in the region. Every country seeks to be close to Hamas and far from its opponents, even though Hamas rejects this type of political wrangling and has declared that it doesn’t belong to anyone.
That Hamas is paying the price for the Arab conflicts in the region is evident in Haniyeh’s expected agenda in the event that his foreign tour goes ahead. The agenda includes: Qatar, Turkey and Iran. These countries have, at the very least, bad relations with Egypt and ties are almost completely severed between them. This has allowed the Egyptians to justify to themselves preventing Haniyeh from carrying out his tour. They believe that holding on to every aspect of the Palestinian issue, either in terms of the internal national reconciliation or in terms of the relationship with Israel, gives them strong leverage regionally and internationally.
Therefore, depriving Haniyeh of communicating with these capitals makes Hamas, at least in Cairo’s view, unable to be influenced by any foreign pressures that try to disrupt the Egyptian political approaches to the Palestinian cause. This is despite the fact that Hamas says, repeatedly, that its own policies are not influenced by pressure or intimidation from any state.
It is worth noting that in light of this unannounced conflict between Hamas and Cairo regarding Haniyeh’s ability to travel, the movement continues to praise Egypt’s policy towards it; especially their security coordination and the adoption of measures by Hamas’ security agencies in Gaza along the Egyptian-Palestinian border.
Even during his meetings with some Egyptian officials, Haniyeh expressed his optimism regarding strengthening the bridges of trust that had been built over the past decades and were revived in recent times. These bridges of trust extend between Hamas and Cairo because they were able to restore much of the vitality of their bilateral relationship.
Hamas did not hesitate recently to show its concern and keenness to preserve Egyptian national security by highlighting the efforts made by its security services in Gaza by controlling the tunnels, pursuing extremist elements and stressing that Gaza will not be a threat to Egypt, but remains a source of security for its neighbour.
It is no secret that the improvement of Hamas’ relations with Egypt provides them with security and political benefits, which is supposed to give Hamas leverage with Egypt. This should allow it to convince the latter to allow Haniyeh to conduct his foreign tour so that Cairo does not appear to be imposing its guardianship over the movement, determining who it visits and who it cuts off. This has not occurred with the other countries that the movement has dealt with such as Jordan, Syria and Qatar.
Finally, Hamas hopes that the improvement of its relations with Egypt would make it easier for Haniyeh to go abroad, as it is interested in its top official visiting certain countries to seek financial support and strengthen political relations. However, Egypt has until now disapproved this request. Moreover, countries influencing Egypt, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, are in strong conflict and hostility with the countries that Haniyeh intends to visit, and they do not want to give them a means to intervene in the Palestinian cause through the Hamas leader. Therefore, they seek to prevent his visit to them.
The Egyptian ban on Haniyeh’s travels abroad deprives the Hamas leadership of communicating with influential capitals in the region and the world, and limits it limited to Cairo alone. This impedes the achievement of the movement’s foreign political aspirations.