Egypt and Israel held high-level talks in both countries Sunday to shore up a fragile truce between Israel and the Hamas militant group and rebuild the Gaza Strip after a punishing 11-day war that left parts of the seaside enclave in ruins.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry received his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, in Cairo on Sunday as part of Egypt’s efforts to revive the Mideast peace process and to “build on the cease-fire in Gaza,” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said.
It was the first public visit by an Israeli foreign minister to Egypt since 2008, the Israeli Embassy in Cairo said. It wrote that the two ministers would discuss topics including the cease-fire and the release of Israeli soldiers and citizens being held by Hamas.
“We will discuss establishing a permanent ceasefire with #Hamas, a mechanism for providing humanitarian aid & the reconstruction of #Gaza with a pivotal role played by the intl. community,” Ashkenazi tweeted upon arrival in Cairo.
Hamas is holding the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in a 2014 war. It also is holding two Israeli civilians who were captured after entering Gaza.
As part of the cease-fire efforts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s intelligence chief, in Jerusalem. Netanyahu said he had raised the issue of returning the remains of soldiers and the two civilians as well as Israeli demands to prevent Hamas from gaining strength or diverting resources meant for the civilian population.
An Egyptian official said Kamel would also meet with Palestinian officials in the West Bank before heading to Gaza for talks with Hamas leaders. The intelligence agency, which is Egypt’s equivalent of the CIA, usually handles Egypt’s ties with Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in Gaza.
MENA said Kamel would convey a message from el-Sissi to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, affirming “Egypt’s full support to the Palestinian people.”
During a visit to the region last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was seeking to bolster Abbas and weaken Hamas as part of the cease-fire efforts.
Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas’ forces in 2007, leaving the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in charge of administering autonomous zones in some 40% of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, is branded a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and other Western countries.
Discussions with Israeli officials have touched on a set of measures that would allow materials, electricity and fuel into the territory, as well as the possible expansion of maritime space allowed for Gaza fishermen, the Egyptian official said.
“The role of the Palestinian Authority is central in the talks,” he said. “Egypt is seeking to have it deeply involved in the reconstruction process.”
The Egyptian official, who had close knowledge of the proceedings that led to the cease-fire, spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t allowed to brief reporters.
The 11-day war killed more than 250 people, mostly Palestinians, and caused heavy destruction in the impoverished coastal territory. Preliminary estimates have put the damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Egypt was key in mediating a deal between the two sides.
The official said Egypt has offered guarantees that rebuilding funds will not find its way to Hamas, possibly going through an international committee led by Egypt or the United Nations that would oversee the spending.
Kamel has also discussed the situation in Jerusalem and ways to ease tensions in the holy city. That would include understandings at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, where Israeli police repeatedly clashed with Palestinian demonstrators, and how to prevent the planned eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in east Jerusalem, the official said.
Egypt last week invited Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority for separate talks in Cairo to consolidate the Cairo-mediated cease-fire and accelerate the reconstruction process in Gaza.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is expected to visit Cairo this week, according to the group’s spokesman Abdelatif al-Qanou, who also said Hamas is open to discussing a prisoner swap with Israel.