Expert on Arab affairs Marianna Belenkaya talks about the planned operation in Rafah, Hamas' demands, and Qatar and China's possible roles as mediators in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict

Israel's preparations for an operation in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip is one of the most discussed news of the week in the region. Against this backdrop, Cairo is making what Arab media call "a final attempt" to achieve a temporary ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas. However, it seems impossible so far to overcome the main disagreement between the sides. Israel does not even consider the possibility of withdrawing forces from the Gaza Strip, which Hamas continues to insist on. Moreover, Hamas representatives confidently talk about the political future of the movement, which is unacceptable to Israel. 

Nonetheless, the future of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian territories as a whole concerns the mediators. It is clear that each of them is trying to secure a place in resolving this issue. While Israel would prefer to see Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the US among the mediators, Hamas, not rejecting the role of Cairo and understanding the importance of Washington, demands not only Doha but also Moscow as guarantors of future agreements. Meanwhile, unexpectedly, Beijing has emerged from the shadows, hosting negotiations between Hamas and its main rival on the Palestinian street, Fatah.

Egypt hopes to avoid an operation in Rafah

Israeli media report that an operation in Rafah is practically a foregone conclusion. Day by day, the plan to relocate the civilian population from Rafah to other areas of the Gaza Strip is expected to begin. The operation in Rafah is intended to proceed gradually, district by district. This plan was adopted under pressure from the USA, which feared huge casualties among the more than one million population of Rafah and, consequently, serious political and diplomatic problems for both themselves and Israel. However, even the limited scale of the operation does not solve all issues. Arab countries, at least publicly, are categorically against the upcoming operation and would prefer a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

Photo: IDF

The Israeli leadership is not backing down from the operation in Rafah and continues to use the preparation for it as a way to pressure Hamas. However, an informed Israeli source in a conversation with Ynet hinted that if Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, stops his maneuvering and the contours of a "ceasefire in exchange for hostages" deal become realistic, Israel could reconsider the operation. That is, there is still a possibility. Mediators are clearly trying not to miss this, albeit faint, chance to avoid an operation in Rafah.

Among them, Egypt stands out this week, as Rafah directly borders its territory. For months, Cairo has made it clear that it does not want to accept refugees from the Gaza Strip on its territory. Moreover, it does not want to be involved in military actions to any degree, which could happen in the event of attempts to breach the border from Gaza.

From the very beginning of the war between Israel and Hamas, Egypt has acted as a mediator between the conflicting parties but almost always shared this role with Qatar. Negotiations took place either in the capital of one country or the other, and it was not always clear who played the leading role. Recently, Doha, where the political office of Hamas is located, was mentioned more frequently. The name of Qatar's Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, was also frequently mentioned. However, last week, Doha announced its intention to reconsider its role as a mediator. This was largely due to criticism of Qatar by influential American congressmen and accusations from Israel of pandering to Hamas. Washington quickly assured that they still count on Doha, while Israel prefers Cairo. And indeed, Egypt has become more active.

In the middle of the week, at the Egyptians' invitation, the head of the Israeli Security Agency, Ronen Bar, and the chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Herzi Halevi, traveled to Cairo. On Friday, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel flew to Israel.

Photo: AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana

As Arab media note, Cairo sees these negotiations as a last-ditch effort to achieve a ceasefire and prevent an Israeli military operation in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. Egypt understands that these efforts might not be successful and has previously reported that Cairo is prepared for any outcome. However, Egyptian officials, starting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, consistently emphasize their immovable opposition to an operation in Rafah.

According to information from the London-based newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Cairo is proposing that Israel agree to allow displaced persons to return to the northern part of the Gaza Strip and withdraw troops from most of the Netzarim axis—a corridor that separates the northern part of the sector from other areas. Egyptian ideas also include several stages of prisoner exchanges and periods of calm between them.

Israeli media, citing their sources, published somewhat different proposals from Cairo. These are aimed not only at the present but also at a more distant future: Israel halts all preparations for an operation in Rafah, Hamas releases all kidnapped persons in two stages with a ten-week interval, and then both sides commit to a ceasefire for a year, during which steps towards the establishment of a Palestinian state are to begin. Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in Ramallah are to be partners in this process.

Political declaration of Hamas

Amid Israel's attempts to sideline Qatar's mediation efforts and operate through Egypt, Hamas insists that both Cairo and Doha are equally important as mediators. However, this does not limit the number of mediators but rather expands it. According to Khalil al-Hayya, a member of the Hamas politburo and deputy head of the movement in the Gaza Strip, future agreements with Israel should be guaranteed not only by Egypt and Qatar but also by the Americans, Turkey, and "a large and powerful country." Al Jazeera, which aired this interview, clarifies that the latter refers to Russia.

Al-Hayya's interview represents a comprehensive political declaration of how Hamas envisions the near future. In a previous conversation with the Associated Press, he stated that the movement is ready for a truce with Israel lasting five years or more. He also mentioned that Hamas is prepared to join the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, as required by UN Security Council resolutions. Should these conditions be met, including the resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, Hamas would dissolve its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Details were further clarified in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Photo: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Al-Hayya clarified that Hamas still believes Palestinians have a right to all of Palestine (the territory from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River that was under British mandate before 1948). However, at this stage, the movement is prepared to consolidate with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for the sake of national consensus. This means agreeing to the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank with East Jerusalem as its capital within the 1967 borders, as dictated by UN Security Council resolutions. It also involves realizing the right of Palestinian refugees to return. Regarding the dissolution of its military wing, al-Hayya stated that the resistance forces could be integrated into the military structure of the future state along with their weapons.

Al-Hayya's words didn't introduce fundamentally new elements that hadn't been voiced before, but the timing of his statement is significant. Currently, Israel is facing pressure from various quarters to resolve the Palestinian state issue, and all mediators—including those who don't directly communicate with each other, such as Russia and the USA—agree on this, albeit with differing visions, especially regarding Hamas's role in Palestine's future political life. The USA and Israel consider Hamas fundamentally illegitimate and are not prepared to accept its representatives in any role. In contrast, Qatar and increasingly active Turkey are promoting the idea that Hamas would renounce the armed struggle if a Palestinian state were established. Russia also supports this view.

Palestinian reconciliation in Beijing

Arab mediators beyond Doha cautiously discuss the possibility of including Hamas in future Palestinian governance bodies. They emphasize the importance of achieving unity among Palestinian factions as a prerequisite. These mediators, particularly from key Arab capitals important to Israel, such as Riyadh, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Amman, do not harbor significant affection for Hamas.

After Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the Palestinian leadership has been divided. Even before this takeover, Hamas and Islamic Jihad were not part of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), highlighting their disagreement with the PLO's attempts to cooperate with Israel. Numerous attempts to reconcile Hamas with Fatah—by the system-forming movement within the PLO and in Palestinian self-governance bodies—have consistently failed. Moscow made one of the latest attempts at the end of February. Representatives of all Palestinian factions gathered in the Russian capital, resulting in a joint declaration expressing an intention to continue dialogue. Unity was expressed in the rejection of Israeli aggression. After that, the parties dispersed and continued to criticize each other harshly. The rivalry and mutual grievances have not subsided.

Photo: Iranian Presidency Office via AP

However, according to al-Hayya, mediators have made it clear to Hamas that it can only preserve itself through integration with the PLO and reconciliation with Fatah. Fatah is wary of the ongoing process but does not reject the idea of reconciliation to avoid appearing at fault.

On Friday, delegations from Fatah and Hamas gathered in Beijing at the Chinese side's invitation. The main topic was another attempt to achieve national consensus.

China has traditionally not been deeply involved in political resolutions in the Middle East. However, last year in Beijing, the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia was announced. The sides had been attempting to restore diplomatic contacts for several years through various mediators, but it's noteworthy that the final agreement was reached in China. Therefore, the meeting between the delegations of Fatah and Hamas has garnered significant interest.

At the onset of the war between Israel and Hamas, Beijing initially attempted to mediate and propose its own ideas but later receded into the background, mainly expressing its opinions during discussions and votes at the UN Security Council. Beijing's stance generally aligns with that of Russia and the broader Arab community—urgently stopping the war in the Gaza Strip and compelling Israel to adhere to international resolutions, including those concerning Palestinian rights to their state. In an interview published this week on Al Jazeera, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that Beijing supports Palestine's full membership in the UN and calls for the prompt convening of an international peace conference aimed at achieving peace between the two states—Palestine and Israel.

USA between everyone

Interestingly, the meeting between Hamas and Fatah in Beijing coincided with the visit to Beijing by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. It's doubtful that the Chinese leadership does anything just by chance. As noted earlier, Washington does not see a possibility for Hamas to govern the Gaza Strip or even participate in the governing bodies of the Palestinian National Authority.

According to various Arab sources, the US is lobbying for the Gaza Strip to be governed by the official Palestinian administration, which so far only sits in Ramallah, with the support of a number of Arab countries.

Photo: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

This week, Al-Araby Al-Jadid reported, citing an American diplomat who asked to remain anonymous, that Washington has received preliminary consent from Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE for a presence in the Gaza Strip. Whether this refers to a military presence or support for the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in addressing humanitarian and administrative issues is not specified. Previously, all Arab capitals categorically stated that they would not send their troops to the sector. The Al-Araby Al-Jadid source claims that Cairo has set several conditions—its presence in the sector would be limited to a short period and only if requested by the PNA. Moreover, all this is possible only after a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and if a return to the borders that existed before the war began on October 7.

It is difficult to determine how accurate the statements of the American diplomat are. However, it is clear that this topic is constantly being discussed between Washington and its allies. It will also be a topic during Antony Blinken's upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia, where he will go after China. The Secretary of State also plans to visit Israel. The itinerary shows that Washington still hopes for the normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations. However, this is again hindered by Israel's plans to conduct an operation in Rafah, as well as the Israeli authorities' refusal even to consider the possibility of creating a Palestinian state in the future.

So, everything remains very abstract, and the region sees the most unimaginable combinations among intermediaries. Qatar, despite playing the victim, does not actually intend to abandon its mediation mission. This week it was repeatedly emphasized that despite numerous media publications, Doha is not denying refuge to the political leadership of Hamas. Through Qatar, a video of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a hostage with dual American and Israeli citizenship held in Gaza, was received and transmitted to the USA and Israel. This indicates that it is important for Doha to demonstrate that it is still in contact with Hamas. For the USA, in turn, it is also necessary to continue cooperation with Qatar, whether Israel likes it or not, as well as with other Arab countries. Otherwise, the USA risks losing its leading role in the region, potentially ceding it to China, for example.