Four hours before Israel began bombing the Gaza Strip on Friday, Egyptian mediators told the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement that Israel was not looking for an escalation, and would respond “positively” to a request to release two PIJ members from prison. An Israeli cabinet meeting to be held on the Sunday would announce this as a breakthrough in negotiations, the movement was reportedly told.
The assurances were conveyed to a senior member of the PIJ’s political bureau by Egyptian mediator Brigadier Ahmed Abdul Khaliq at noon on Friday local time, four hours and twenty minutes before the first Israeli air strike struck the Gaza Strip, sources close to the PIJ told Middle East Eye.
In the first detailed account of the negotiations that preceded Israel’s latest offensive on Gaza, MEE can reveal there is now “considerable anger” towards Egyptian intelligence services from the PIJ over the role played by Cairo in the hours before Israel launched its most recent bombing campaign.
“[The PIJ] believe they have been betrayed by the Egyptians and that they were part of the game – to make them feel relaxed and secure just before the air strikes took place,” a senior Palestinian source close to the PIJ told MEE.
“There is a lot of anger and tension within Islamic Jihad because of the role of [the] Egyptian mediation, because they consider the Egyptians gave them misleading information and hints just before the air strikes. As a result of this information, the Islamic Jihad relaxed and was unprepared for the air strikes.”
Sources close to the PIJ told MEE that Abdul Khaliq incorrectly told Khaled al-Batsh, a senior member of the PIJ’s political bureau, that there had been a “breakthrough” in indirect negotiations.
Israeli intelligence agents reportedly passed the following message to the PIJ through Egyptian intelligence: “We want to end this escalation. Give us until Sunday and we are pushing them [Israel’s political leaders] to agree.”
What triggered the unrest?
Tensions escalated early last week when Israeli forces arrested Bassam al-Saadi, a senior PIJ commander, in the occupied West Bank.
Saadi was arrested following an Israeli raid in the city of Jenin, during which a Palestinian teenager was killed.
“When the Sheikh [Saadi] was arrested, there was some discussion in Gaza over whether to retaliate. The way he was arrested was humiliating, so that generated some anger. Immediately [the] Egyptians tried to calm the situation,” one source with knowledge of the negotiations told MEE.
“The man doing that was the brigadier. He conveyed messages that the Shin Bet [Israel’s internal intelligence agency] was not interested in escalation.”
According to one source close to the PIJ, the movement asked Egyptian intelligence, and later obtained, filmed assurances of Saadi’s physical wellbeing.
“This was taken as a good sign,” the PIJ source said.
The PIJ then demanded the release of both Saadi and PIJ prisoner Khalil Awawdah, who has refused food for more than 150 days in a bid to draw attention to his detention by Israel without trial or charge.
Egyptian intelligence had told the PIJ that Shin Bet was “dealing positively” with the requests, and that they were very keen to ease tensions. They also said they were pushing the Israeli cabinet for the release of the two men.
Qatar’s role platformed
But on Friday, Abdul Khaliq – who runs Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate unit, which is in charge of negotiations between Gaza-based Palestinian factions and Israeli intelligence, and who routinely chairs delegations from Hamas and the PIJ in Cairo – told Batsh of a breakthrough, which would be announced at the usual Israeli cabinet meeting on Sunday.
Then, just four hours later, Israel began bombing the Gaza Strip, killing Taiseer al-Jabari, the commander of the northern division of al-Quds Brigades (Saraya al-Quds), the military wing of the PIJ, along with at least nine others, including a five-year-old girl.
As the air strikes rained down on Gaza for a second day, Khaled Mansour, a PIJ leader in southern Gaza, was targeted and killed in an Israeli air strike. Mansour had been a delegate at PIJ talks in Cairo.
The Israeli military said on Saturday that it had arrested at least 19 members of the PIJ in the occupied West Bank. The targeted air strikes and string of arrests have ruptured relations between the PIJ and Egyptian intelligence, with Ziad al-Nakhalah, the head of the PIJ, refusing to take calls from Egyptian intelligence, sources close to the PIJ told MEE.
The two sides had been previously very close, with the PIJ having mediated between Egyptian intelligence and Hamas.
The anger towards the Egyptians was made evident earlier this week when Nakhalah spoke at a press conference in the Iranian capital, Tehran.
Nakhalah praised the support he had received from Iran, Iraq and Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, but notably failed to mention the role Egypt had played. He also thanked the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera media network for its rolling coverage of the assault on Gaza.
Egyptian reportedly protested, telling the PIJ they could not understand why Doha’s role had been praised and Cairo’s efforts to de-escalate tensions were overlooked.
Risk of more violence
Following a ceasefire brokered on Sunday by Egypt – with help from the United Nations and Qatar – the PIJ conveyed through Egyptian intelligence that they would stop rocket attacks following Israel’s reported pledge to release Saadi and Awawdah.
However, this was shattered when Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz ruled out Saadi’s release.
“Saadi was justifiably arrested and I’m not familiar with a promise to release terrorists,” Gantz told Israel’s Channel 12 news.
“I don’t want to simply promise they won’t be released. We don’t hold people in prison for nothing.”
In an attempt to mend ties with the the PIJ following Israel’s offensive, Egypt has promised to send “a large delegation” to Israel to secure Awawdah’s release.
The PIJ meanwhile is threatening to restart military action. “The PIJ is threatening to go back to escalation if there is no progress,” the source close to the PIJ told MEE.
MEE asked the Egyptian embassy in London and the Israeli military for comment but did not receive a response by time of publication.
Disclaimer: Islamic Jihad angry with Egypt 'betrayal' ahead of Gaza raids - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view