Related Quarterly Updates

As the quarter opened, Pres. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s govt. supported the PA’s diplomatic initiatives within international institutions, but its relations with both Israel and Hamas remained strained.

In the context of an unstable situation in Sinai and the lack of progress on Palestinian national reconciliation, which al-Sisi has long upheld as a prerequisite for more frequent openings of the Rafah border crossing, the Egyptian govt. closed the crossing for all but 2 days (5/11–12) of the quarter. Of 30,000 Palestinian applicants, only 739 were able to exit Gaza for Egypt and 1,220 were able to enter. This marked the longest closure since 2007 and inevitably worsened Gaza’s already precarious humanitarian status, thus intensifying pressures on the Hamas-run govt. and, in turn, heightening the tension between Egypt and Hamas.

Egypt’s interior min. Magdy Abdel Ghaffar alleged (3/6) that Hamas had enjoyed “close coordination” with Muslim Brotherhood (MB) activists before they assassinated Egypt’s public prosecutor on 6/29/2015, an accusation that further inflamed tensions between al-Sisi’s fledgling govt. and the MB. Hamas immediately denied any such involvement (3/6), with a spokesperson countering that the “false” connection between Hamas and the MB was meant to undermine Hamas and reflected “internal Egyptian disputes.”

It was in this context that Hamas leaders sent a delegation to Cairo (3/12–15) for talks on improving bilateral relations. Although Egyptian security officials said (3/15) no meaningful progress was made, Hamas’s leadership continued their efforts. In a direct appeal to al-Sisi, whose differences with the MB remained significant (Asharq al-Awsat, 3/21), Hamas reportedly ordered the removal from Gazan streets and mosques of portraits of senior MB officials. In a 2d round of talks (3/27), when relations had “improved noticeably” according to Egyptian commentators (4/11), Hamas reps. reportedly pledged to secure Gaza’s border with Egypt and advance Palestinian national reconciliation with the PA (see “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” above) while the Egyptians agreed to start talks with the PA with a view to the permanent reopening of the Rafah crossing under PASF control (Hamas had agreed to this in talks with PA officials last quarter; see JPS 45 [3]). By the end of the quarter, Hamas had taken steps to implement the new measures establishing (4/14) 3 new bases and a number of temporary structures along Gaza’s s. border and redeploying (4/21) and beefing up (4/22) border patrols. Apart from the opening of the Rafah crossing for 2 days in early 5/2016, however, it was unclear that these steps had any effect on the well-being of Gaza residents.

Although the Israeli and Egyptian govts. continued to cooperate on security coordination between them during the quarter, 2 minor economic and diplomatic incidents blocked progress. Early in the quarter, Egyptian MP Tawfik Okasha invited Israeli amb. to Egypt Haim Koren to his home where the 2 officials had wide-ranging discussions (2/23) on culture, economics, communications, society, and politics. The invitation reportedly surprised Koren, who had been largely ignored by the Egyptian parliament ever since being credentialed in 9/2014 (see JPS 44 [2]), and it incensed many of Okasha’s colleagues. Fellow MP Kamal Ahmed threw (2/28) a shoe at Okasha during a legislative session and both men were then expelled from the plenum. In an attempt to de-escalate tensions, the Israel Football Association invited the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to play a friendly match to “break the barriers between the 2 countries and to [foster] a peaceful atmosphere.” The EFA declined (2/29) however, and then 465 of 595 MPs voted (3/2) to remove Okasha from Parliament permanently on the grounds that he had damaged Egypt’s relations with its neighbors and violated the legislature’s opposition to normalization of relations with Israel. In a related development, Israel’s Supreme Court suspended (3/27) the Israeli govt.’s agreement with the consortium of companies—Noble Energy and the Delek Group—contracted to develop the offshore Leviathan natural gas field. The suspension complicated the consortium’s agreement to supply natural gas to Egypt’s Dolphinus Holdings (see JPS 45 [3]), and cast doubt over energy and economic ties between Israel and Egypt.

These minor controversies were overshadowed by Egyptian-Israeli coordination in the context of a broader regional realignment (see “Regional Affairs” below). While Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz was in Cairo negotiating and signing deals worth over $24 b., including 1 to set up a “free-trade zone” in Sinai, the Egyptian govt. announced (4/9) that it was ceding control of 2 uninhabited Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Although the cabinet depicted this concession as a transfer back to Saudi Arabia, there was a public outcry in the country. Since Egypt guaranteed Israel unfettered access to Red Sea shipping lanes as a part of the 1979 peace treaty, the handover of the islands threw into doubt Israel’s relationship with the new Saudi-led Sunni axis opposing Iran. Uncertainties subsided on 4/12, however, when Israeli DM Ya’alon said that Saudi Arabia had pledged, in a written document, to respect the relevant provisions of the 1979 treaty and that Israel had approved of the island swap beforehand.

Since taking office in 6/2014, Egyptian pres. al-Sisi has supported Palestinian efforts in international fora, but remained largely removed from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This quarter, he made a high-profile speech in which he pledged that Egypt would push for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks (see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” above). However, despite its enthusiastic embrace of the Egyptian initiative, Israel refused to reconsider its negotiating position, which alongside Cairo’s strained relations with Hamas, weakened al-Sisi’s hand.

Al-Sisi’s 5/17 speech did not clarify the specific nature of Egypt’s overtures to Israel and the Palestinians. There were 2 significant incidents, however, that pointed to the seriousness of Cairo’s intentions. On 6/16, Egypt’s amb. to Israel Hazem Khairat made a rare statement, his 1st in public since taking up his post in 2/2016, in which he called for the resumption of peace talks and reaffirmed Cairo’s willingness to help create an “appropriate Palestinian environment” for a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (Palestinian national reconciliation as a prerequisite to any peace deal was a key element in al-Sisi’s 5/17 speech). Later in the quarter, reaffirming al-Sisi’s commitment, Egyptian FM Shoukry visited (7/10) Israel to discuss his country’s efforts with Netanyahu and to advance plans for a meeting between the Israeli PM and PA pres. Abbas in Cairo (see “A New Egyptian Dimension” above).

The Israelis welcomed Egypt’s initiative as an alternative to the French one, even though neither the Egyptians nor the French viewed their efforts as distinct. A week after al-Sisi’s speech, Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced (5/23) that it had returned 2 Egyptian relics to Cairo (the lids to wooden coffins that had been smuggled from Egypt to Dubai, then London, and ultimately to Jerusalem), framing this as an improvement in bilateral relations. “The return of the Egyptian [artifacts] is symbolic, more than anything, of the changing relations [between] Israel and Egypt,” an official stated. For his part, Netanyahu repeatedly commended al-Sisi, saying (7/21) that Cairo had made a “serious effort” to “break the deadlock that has hung over peace efforts.”

Egypt’s counterinsurgency in n. Sinai continued unabated this quarter, along with Israel’s efforts to strengthen the Egyptian authorities’ hand. On 7/5, Israel’s amb. to Egypt Haim Koren asserted that the 2 countries were having the “best times we’ve ever had,” and that there’s “good cooperation between the armies, we have understandings about the Sinai Peninsula, and basically, we see [eye to eye] on development of the region.” The day after Shoukry met with Netanyahu in Israel, a senior Israeli official praised Israeli-Egyptian security coordination in n. Sinai, emphasizing that IDF drone strikes in Sinai in recent years had all taken place with Cairo’s knowledge and approval.

The burgeoning Hamas-Egypt rapprochement stalled this quarter after Hamas put out (6/7) a press release in which it claimed to have made every possible effort to secure the s. border and calling for Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing (Egypt has kept the crossing almost entirely closed since the escalation of violence in n. Sinai in 10/2014; see JPS 45 [4]). Cairo reportedly invited, then disinvited, Hamas for another round of talks. According to an Egyptian security source, the meetings had been planned as part of Egypt’s efforts to push for Palestinian national reconciliation, and the initial invite included a request for the presence of a rep. of Hamas’s military wing (Ma‘an News Agency, 6/14). After the invitation was canceled, Raialyoum revealed (7/5) that Egyptian security officials were dissatisfied with the steps Hamas had taken since the last round of meetings. Although a senior Hamas official described it (7/5) merely as a “delayed” meeting, no Hamas delegation had traveled to Cairo by the end of the quarter, and the Rafah border crossing remained almost completely closed (see “Movement and Access” above).

 

With his inchoate peace initiative floundering (see JPS 46 [1]), Egyptian pres. al-Sisi disengaged from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this quarter. Although Egyptian diplomats backed Palestinian efforts inside international institutions (see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” above), they let France, Russia, and the U.S. take the lead on efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Meanwhile, al-Sisi’s govt. continued a rapprochement with Israel and relieved pressure on Gaza with more frequent openings of the Rafah border in spite of continuing violence in n. Sinai.

Israeli-Egyptian cooperation on security issues and the blockade of Gaza had been improving for years leading up to this quarter, although al-Sisi’s govt. was far more hesitant to trumpet the burgeoning partnership than were the Israelis. In the same vein, the 2 sides advanced joint projects in private, while Egypt denied the growing rapprochement in public.

One telling incident happened early in the quarter, when, according to Al-Araby al-Jadeed, Egyptian FM Sameh Shoukry told (8/21) an audience of high school students that Israel’s killing of Palestinian children couldn’t be defined as terrorism, absent an internationally agreed-upon definition of the term. “Palestine is on our minds and the Egyptian people will remain concerned by the cause,” he was reported as saying, “but the question [of an IsraeliPalestinian agreement] is complicated by [questions of ] political will [on the part of] Israel, the role of the international community, and the Palestinians’ ability to remain steadfast.” Shoukry’s comments drew immediate fire from the Palestinians and their Arab allies. A Hamas spokesperson castigated (8/22) Shoukry for egregiously softening Israel’s image, tweeting, “Anyone who doesn’t view the crimes of the occupation as terrorism is physically blind and suffers from moral decline and a lack of direction.” In its response, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry insisted that Shoukry’s comments were misinterpreted. Be that as it may, Shoukry’s comments illustrated the growing rift between Arab political establishments and their populations.

In a further demonstration of warming Egyptian-Israeli relations, press reports indicated (10/18) that the 2 countries had recently discussed a series of large-scale projects, and specifically the assistance Israel might offer Egypt. Cairo reportedly sought a new desalination facility and extended cooperation on tourism, and Tel Aviv was willing to assist with solar energy, electricity production, agriculture, irrigation, and gas projects. In addition, David Govrin presented his credentials to al-Sisi on 8/31 as Israel’s amb. to Egypt replacing Haim Koren, who asked to step down after only 2 years in the post.

In addition to more than doubling the number of times it opened the Rafah border crossing this quarter (see “Movement and Access” above), the Egyptian govt. was also considering the establishment of a free trade zone in Rafah, according to the Times of Israel on 11/4. As the city straddles both Egypt and Gaza, a free trade zone would effectively ease restrictions on Gazans, allowing them to purchase goods on the Egyptian side of the border. It was unclear, however, how soon the Egyptians intended to create the zone, if at all, since the report remained unconfirmed.

Aside from working with the Palestinians to submit an anti-settlement res. to the UNSC on 12/21 (see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” above), the Egyptian govt. was largely absent from the Israeli-Palestinian arena this quarter. A new threat challenged Pres. al-Sisi’s ongoing efforts to improve relations with Israel, and Cairo continued working with Hamas to improve relations and ameliorate humanitarian conditions in Gaza.

While the Egyptian govt. was less enthusiastic than its Israeli counterpart about trumpeting it as a burgeoning Egypt-Israel rapprochement, Israeli-Egyptian security coordination continued apace, drawing increased blowback from mutual adversaries in n. Sinai. On 12/13, Sinai Province of the Islamic State (SPIS) attempted to fire 2 rockets into Israel. Although the missiles fell in an open area short of the border, SPIS claimed (12/14) the attack, describing it as retaliation for alleged recent Israeli air strikes in n. Sinai. Later in the quarter, Israel reported that its Iron Dome missile defense batteries intercepted (2/8) a barrage of rockets, presumably launched by armed groups in n. Sinai. Meanwhile, the staff of Israel’s embassy in Cairo, including Amb. David Govrin, were recalled to Jerusalem due to safety concerns (Haaretz, 2/14). Shin Bet said that Govrin would not be returning any time soon, but did not disclose the nature of the alleged threat.

Such incidents notwithstanding, an Israeli defense official indicated (1/9) that the Israeli govt. had adopted a new policy permitting Egypt to maintain a larger military force in Sinai than Israel had previously allowed. “[SPIS] is a common threat and a common interest,” the official emphasized.

Alongside the crackdown on insurgent groups in n. Sinai, the Egyptian authorities began easing restrictions on Gaza and improving their relationship with Hamas. Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing for 17 days this quarter (see “Movement and Access” above) to “lessen the siege on the Gaza Strip,” according to Egyptian security sources on 12/15. While this constituted a drop from last quarter’s 21, it was a welcome increase from the total of 14 days in the 6 mos. between 2/16/2016 when the crossing was open. Furthermore, 40 cars were allowed (12/18) into Gaza via the Rafah crossing, marking the 1st time vehicles were allowed through since 2013. After bilateral talks in Cairo later in the quarter (1/22), an Egyptian security source said that relations between Hamas and Egypt were improving as a result of better security cooperation along Gaza’s s. border (see JPS 46 [2]). The official also said that al-Sisi had given the “green light” for improving relations with the various Palestinian factions to facilitate Palestinian national reconciliation (see “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” above).

Also of note: Egyptian forces killed 5 Palestinians this quarter when they flooded smuggling tunnels with seawater (12/3 [4] and 2/13). They also shot and injured a Palestinian fisherman working nr. the Egyptian coast on 12/21.

Despite some coordination between Egyptian pres. al-Sisi and PA pres. Abbas on the incoming U.S. admin.’s new “outside-in” approach to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, minor disagreements persisted, and the Egyptian-Palestinian relationship remained uneasy. The tensions came into sharp focus on 2/27, when the Egyptian authorities refused PFA chair Rajoub entry into the country for an Arab League meeting on terrorism and extremism, citing a decision by Egyptian intelligence. Rajoub did not respond publicly, and the Palestinian delegation withdrew in protest. Egyptian officials provided no public explanation beyond stating that Rajoub’s name appeared on a no-entry list. “We did not expect Egypt to treat Rajoub that way,” said a senior Fatah official on 3/10, in revealing comments about the incident. “Although I doubt Rajoub attacked Egyptian policy in the first place, some Palestinians are putting words in his mouth and accusing Egypt of interfering in Palestinian internal affairs.” Abbas then met (3/20) with al-Sisi in “response to those calling into question” the Palestinians’ relationship with Egypt, according to the PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 3/20.

At the same time, Israel and Egypt were cooperating more closely in the ongoing counterinsurgency campaign against the Sinai Province of the Islamic State (SPIS) and other armed groups in the n. Sinai Peninsula, with the IDF presence in Sinai highlighting a deep tension in the Israeli-Egyptian relationship. One mo. after a major bout of cross-border violence (see 2/18–19 in Chronology for details), Israel’s Amb. to Egypt David Govrin made (3/23) an unusual speech at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies in which he stated, “The relations between Israel and Egypt rely to too great an extent on the military leg.” He added, “If peace is to forge deep roots, it needs to stand on two feet, the military and the civilian-economic. It is only the combination of the two that will ensure long-term cooperation between the countries.” Govrin criticized Egypt’s view of peace as merely an absence of war rather than a full normalization of relations and cultural exchange with Israel. Egypt’s amb. to Israel, Hazem Khairat, then replied to Govrin’s speech, describing relations between the 2 countries as good and commending in particular Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation in Sinai. A spokesperson from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to the ambassadorial exchange, saying (3/23), “Israel attaches supreme importance to its relations with Egypt and is committed to advancing them at every level.”

Relations hit a snag in 4/2017 as cross-border tensions erupted again. On 4/10, the Israeli authorities shut down the Taba border crossing into Egypt over suspicions that SPIS was planning to attack Israeli tourists in Sinai. Hours later, SPIS fighters launched a rocket into Israel that struck a greenhouse in the Eshkol region but caused no serious damage or injuries. Although the Israeli authorities ultimately reopened the Taba crossing on 4/21, the National Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau warned (4/21), “the threat to Israelis in the Sinai remains serious, concrete, and imminent.”

Also of note: Human Rights Watch (HRW) called (4/13) on the Egyptian govt. to “immediately disclose” whether or not it was detaining 4 Gaza men, all reportedly Hamas affiliates abducted on 8/19/2015 as they traveled by bus from the Rafah border crossing to Cairo (see JPS 45 [3]). “Based on media reports, including photographs purporting to show 2 of the men in a Cairo detention facility, the families believe they are in Egyptian custody,” HRW’s report stated. “If true, their prolonged incommunicado detention, with Egyptian authorities denying knowledge of the detention or refusing to reveal their whereabouts, would constitute enforced disappearances. Authorities should immediately charge the men if they suspect them of criminal activity, or otherwise release them.”

Cairo was in a unique position this quarter at the nexus of otherwise marginally related trends. On the one hand, Pres. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was working with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain to boycott Qatar over its alleged support for so-called terrorist groups, including Hamas (see “Regional Affairs” below). On the other hand, al-Sisi saw an opportunity to advance his regional agenda in a new round of negotiations with the group.

With Hamas under increasing pressure from PA pres. Abbas (see “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” above), the group’s new secondin-command, Yahya Sinwar, took over the Egypt portfolio this quarter, leading a delegation to Cairo on 6/4. According to a Hamas spokesperson, the 2 sides would discuss Egypt’s role in improving humanitarian conditions in Gaza, specifically the need to open the Rafah border crossing more often. Cairo had kept the crossing largely closed since Islamist fighters in n. Sinai, many of whom later took on the mantle of Sinai Province of the Islamic State (SPIS), launched a major attack on Egyptian forces in 10/2014. Hamas’s relations with Cairo were already strained before then with the Egyptian army’s overthrow of then pres. Mohamed Morsi in 2013 causing the initial rupture (see JPS 43 [1])—but the Islamists’ attack and the ensuing counterinsurgency created a raft of new travel restrictions in Sinai and fostered Israeli-bred suspicions of Hamas involvement. After 9 days of talks, the delegation returned to Gaza on 6/12. “All the shared issues have been studied in a serious and deep way with our Egyptian brothers,” a Hamas source said (6/12).

Although neither side officially announced a breakthrough or disclosed specific details about the talks, rumors and unconfirmed reports proliferated in the Arab media. On 6/12 Asharq Al-Awsat reported that the Egyptian authorities offered to increase the supply of electricity to Gaza and to open the Rafah crossing more frequently in exchange for Hamas releasing 17 men wanted by the Egyptian govt., increasing security along the Gaza-Egypt border, stopping alleged weapons smuggling into Sinai, and supplying information on the movement of armed fighters between Sinai and Gaza.

Hamas’s conduct in the wake of the delegation’s visit to Cairo indicated that the movement was on board with the rumored deal. On 6/13, the Hamas-run Ministry of Interior and Internal Security recommended a series of procedures to “enhance the state of security at the s. border with Egypt.” Two weeks later, Hamas announced (6/28) that it was implementing the recommendations, including the establishment of a 100 m “buffer zone” and the installation of new watchtowers and cameras along the border. Dep. Minister of Interior and Internal Security Tawfiq Abu Naim said (6/28) the new measures had been taken in order to secure “control of the s. border and to completely prevent infiltration and smuggling” and that they were meant as a “reassuring message” to Egypt. “The national security of Egypt is the national security of Gaza,” he added. Around the same time there were other signs of growing cooperation between Egypt and Hamas, including Egyptian shipments of fuel to the Gaza power plant and the reemergence of exiled Fatah leader Dahlan in Cairo (see “Gaza’s Electricity Crisis” and “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” above).

After another delegation visited Cairo (7/2) to build on the 6/4–12 talks, a Hamas spokesperson confirmed (7/2) that relations had reached a “positive turning point,” and that Hamas was implementing several procedures agreed to in 6/2017. Then, in his first major speech as the movement’s new head, Ismail Haniyeh thanked (7/5) Egypt for its efforts to improve conditions in Gaza and announced that Cairo had agreed to more frequent openings of the Rafah crossing. “We have turned a new page in our relationship [with Egypt],” he added.

The budding Egypt-Hamas rapprochement was subsequently jeopardized, however. On 7/7, a suicide bomber detonated a car at an Egyptian checkpoint in Rafah, killing 10 Egyptian soldiers and injuring 16 others. In their search for accomplices, the Egyptian army killed 40 armed fighters, including many affiliated with SPIS, and destroyed 6 vehicles in the area.

In addition to interrupting fuel deliveries to Gaza, the attack also gave Hamas’s enemies an opening. The IDF’s COGAT Mordechai claimed (7/8) that 4 former mbrs. of Hamas had participated in the clashes against the Egyptian army in Sinai on 7/7. “Hamas and Islamic State are 2 sides of the same coin,” he said, referring to the largest Islamist group active in Sinai, SPIS. Mordechai also argued that their participation demonstrated that Hamas was not helping Egypt as much as it was “enabling the free passage of terrorist elements between Gaza and Sinai.” Hamas’s main rival, the Fatah-dominated PA, also sought to stymie the growing Hamas-Egyptian rapprochement. Abbas met al-Sisi on 7/9 to discuss the U.S.-led initiative (see “The Trump Initiative” above), regional developments, and Hamas. Details of their meeting were not disclosed, but a PA source said (7/9) the meeting was “successful” and that al-Sisi supported the “legitimate Palestinian leadership.” After the meeting, senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad contradicted some of the earlier Hamas reports on the agreement with Egypt. “The Rafah border crossing will not be opened in a regular manner without the official and legitimate border authority subordinate to [Abbas],” he said.

There were further reports of HamasEgyptian talks through the end of the quarter, but no further announcements. Although they had clearly made progress toward a broader understanding, the Egyptian authorities kept the Rafah crossing closed for all but 2 days this quarter, allowing a limited number of Muslim pilgrims to exit Gaza (8/14–15) on their way to Mecca.

The Egyptian govt., particularly its intelligence apparatus, was instrumental in brokering the new Palestinian reconciliation agreement. Dir. of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate Fawzy mediated the Hamas-Fatah talks in Cairo that led to the 10/12 deal, and he was expected to broker follow-up talks planned for late 11/2017 as well. Egyptian pres. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi frequently framed Palestinian reconciliation as a prelude to a broader Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli peace. On the sidelines of the UNGA in New York, he reportedly told (9/17) Israeli PM Netanyahu and a group of U.S. Jewish leaders that he was eager to build on the Palestinian deal. “When the world sees the Palestinian sides united, this helps achieve comprehensive peace that fulfills the ambitions of our nations,” he reportedly said in a recording obtained by al-Quds on 10/3. “We have no time to waste.”

Meanwhile, the Israeli govt. took a major step toward rebuilding relations with Egypt. On 8/23, Israel’s amb. to Egypt David Govrin led a delegation to Cairo, marking his first visit since the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was evacuated over unspecified “security concerns” in 12/2016 (see JPS 46 [3]). The following week, Govrin and 8 staffers returned to Cairo, where they resumed their diplomatic duties out of his suburban home.

With presidential elections approaching in 3/2018, Egypt was increasingly focused on domestic politics this quarter. Egyptian involvement in the Palestinian reconciliation process and the U.S.-led effort to restart Palestinian-Israeli peace talks consequently diminished.

Along with the rest of the Arab world, Egyptian officials publicly denounced U.S. president Trump’s 12/6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (see “The Palestinian-Israel Conflict” above). However, a series of recordings obtained by the New York Times revealed (1/6) a more complicated dynamic unfolding outside the public eye in Cairo. According to the paper’s report, an Egyptian intelligence officer made a series of phone calls to the hosts of influential local talk shows in the wake of Trump’s announcement, in which he can be heard telling them that increased tension with Israel would not be in Egypt’s interest and that instead of condemning the decision, they should encourage their audiences to accept it. “How is Jerusalem different from Ramallah, really?” he is reportedly heard asking. “We have enough on our plate as you know.” Although at least one of the hosts confirmed the veracity of the tapes, the Egyptian government issued a blanket denial, and Prosecutor General Nabil Sadek ordered (1/11) a criminal investigation into the story, saying that the U.S. newspaper’s article “undermines Egypt’s security and public peace, and harms the country’s public interest.”

Despite the protestations from Cairo, the al-Sisi government has been increasingly friendly with Israel in recent years, especially in light of the expanded military cooperation between the two countries in the struggle against armed groups in Sinai. According to a number of U.S. officials on 2/3, Israeli air support was instrumental in the Egyptian army’s counterinsurgency efforts. The same sources said that Israeli drones, helicopters, and jets had stealthily conducted more than one hundred air strikes on the armed groups since the insurgency intensified in the wake of then president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster on 7/3/2013 (see JPS 43 [1]). While intermittent rumors and unconfirmed reports of Israeli air strikes in Sinai have circulated over the years, both countries have kept the extent of their cooperation secret because of a feared backlash from the Egyptian public. In that vein, an Egyptian military spokesperson denied the Times report on 2/4: “Only the Egyptian army is authorized to and does conduct military operations in specific areas in northern Sinai, in cooperation with the civilian police.”

As in previous quarters, the ongoing conflict in Sinai and specifically the Egyptian efforts to restrict the movement of armed groups in the region had a direct impact on the Palestinians in Gaza (see “Gaza Electricity Crisis” above). Egypt had kept the Rafah border crossing largely closed ever since a major attack on Egyptian troops in 10/2014 (see JPS 44 [2]), blocking or delaying tens of thousands of Palestinian patients from traveling abroad for medical services. In 6/2017, Hamas reached an agreement with the Egyptian government, in which it pledged to crack down on Islamists in Gaza and step up border security in exchange for more frequent openings of Rafah (see JPS 47 [1]). Hamas appeared to be holding up its side of the deal (see “Hamas Cracks Down on Islamists in Gaza” above), but the Egyptian authorities did not keep the border open consistently (see “Movement and Access” above).

After SPIS fighters armed with guns and bombs killed (11/24) at least 235 people (the figure rose to 305 within the next twenty-four hours) at a crowded mosque near al-Arish, Egypt stepped up its counterinsurgency. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Egyptian army killed approximately 30 SPIS fighters in a series of strikes on known hideouts around al-Arish. The Egyptian authorities also canceled what had been a planned reopening of the Rafah border crossing on 11/25–27. Amid heightened tensions, al-Sisi gave the Egyptian army three months to restore “security and stability,” authorizing them to use “brute force.” It was unclear exactly what tactics al-Sisi was referring to, but the Rafah crossing remained closed for all but seven days from that incident through the end of the quarter.

Also of note: Egyptian naval forces shot and killed a Palestinian fisherman working off Gaza’s coast on 1/13. The Egyptian navy later claimed that the man was fishing in Egyptian territorial waters; Palestinian fishermen frequently fish these waters to circumvent the navigational restrictions put in place by Israel’s blockade.

Besides ongoing talks by the General Intelligence Directorate with Hamas on the stalled Palestinian reconciliation process and the Great March of Return (see “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” and “Great March of Return” above), this quarter the Egyptian government lent its voice to the chorus of international condemnation on Israel’s use of deadly force in Gaza and the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. That aside, there was only one significant Egypt-related development in the Palestinian-Israeli arena.

On 2/19, the consortium of companies leading extraction work at the Leviathan and Tamar natural gas fields off Israel’s coast—the U.S.-based Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek Group—announced a $15 billion export agreement with Egypt’s Dolphinus Holdings. Under the agreement, Egypt would import 64 billion cubic meters of Israeli natural gas over ten years. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu lauded the agreement, saying it would “strengthen our economy” and “regional ties.” Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz called it Israel’s most significant export deal with Egypt since the two countries’ 1979 peace treaty.

The Egyptian response to the 2/19 deal appeared conflicted. On 2/26, Haaretz reported that Egyptian officials had “signaled” that implementation was contingent on Israel abdicating its claim to a $1.8 billion Egyptian debt (on 4/28/2017, an international court in Geneva ordered Cairo to pay the sum to the IEC in compensation for suspending natural gas exports in 2012). This appeared to come as a surprise to the Israelis. “Israel hasn’t given up on the debt and the matter did not come up for discussion during talks on the Leviathan export deal to Egypt that was signed [last] week, Israel’s Ministry of Energy stated (2/26). “There won’t be any backing down on the debt,” the IEC added. “The company continues to seek to collect it.” By the end of the quarter, it was unclear whether the deal would go forward or some new compromise would be reached.

For Egypt-Israel security cooperation in Sinai and the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, see Israel.

               Former president of Egypt Mohamed Morsi, who was on trial in Egypt, died in a courtroom shortly after addressing the court on 17 June. He was buried in secrecy on 18 June. Amnesty International called for the Egyptian authorities to investigate Morsi’s death. A leading member of Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, called his death a “premeditated murder,” citing lack of medical care for the former president while in prison. The exact circumstances for Morsi’s death remained unclear by the end of the quarter. In April, the U.S. administration announced that it was working toward designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Also in April, Egyptians voted to approve a constitutional amendment allowing Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to remain in power until 2030. Al-Sisi led the military coup that overthrew Morsi in 2013. According to Egyptian officials, the voter turnout was 44 percent and 88.8 percent voted in favor of the constitutional amendment. Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists had previously urged the Egyptian government not to amend its constitution, saying that it puts Egypt on a path to more autocratic rule.

Quarterly Updates for (1 Jan 1970 — 1 Jan 1970)

Since taking office in 6/2014, Egyptian pres. al-Sisi has supported Palestinian efforts in international fora, but remained largely removed from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This quarter, he made a high-profile speech in which he pledged that Egypt would push for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks (see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” above).