Israel, Egypt leaders meet to de-escalate Gaza tensions

Occupied West Bank – The meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi likely focused on de-escalating tensions between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza Strip, and could lead to an easing of restrictions on the occupied enclave, analysts say.

The two leaders met for talks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bilateral ties in the first official trip by an Israeli leader to Egypt in a decade.

Bennett, head of the far-right Yamina party who took office in June, met the Egyptian president on Monday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in the southern Sinai Peninsula.

The talks came after days of low-intensity shelling and rocket fire between Israel and Gaza.

According to an Egyptian presidency statement, the talks focused on Egypt’s efforts to maintain calm in the occupied Palestinian territories and the importance of international support for rebuilding efforts there.

Ramallah-based political analyst Ismat Mansour told Al Jazeera the two sides likely focused on de-escalating the recent flare-up between Israel and Palestinian armed groups.

“I think we will be able to sense a development soon towards the better in the general situation on the ground – they will focus on preventing another escalation in Gaza and maintaining the calm there,” said Mansour.

“It is not in Israel nor Hamas’ nor Egypt’s interest to enter into a confrontation now. Hamas wants to improve the living situation on the ground,” he added.

Analyst Mohammad Daraghmeh agreed, saying it is likely they also discussed the 14-year-blockade on the Gaza Strip, indicating there could be improvements.

“I believe that the Israeli vision towards the blockade on Gaza is shifting. [Foreign Minister Yahir] Lapid’s plan – in that he called for ‘economy in exchange for security’ – indicates there could be steps towards lifting the blockade on Gaza. It would be on the basis of: ‘You don’t attack us, we don’t attack you,’” Daraghmeh told Al Jazeera from the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.

“Historically, Hamas would fire rockets when Israel imposes further punitive measures against the Gaza Strip. So, lifting the blockade could reign in more calm.”

The two analysts said the meeting also likely included discussion over a potential prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas, but that there were delays and no clear indicators of a positive development yet.

‘Being friendly’

Israel, with Egypt’s help, has maintained a tight blockade over Gaza since the Palestinian group Hamas began governing the territory in 2007. There have been four wars or assaults on Gaza by Israel, most recently in May.

In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Relations have been cool over the years, but Egypt has played a key role in mediating ceasefires between Israel and Palestinian groups in Gaza in various rounds of fighting.

Cairo’s mediation efforts in the 11-day assault on the Gaza Strip in May led to a ceasefire. The conflict killed more than 260 Palestinians as well as 13 people in Israel.

Because of the new US administration’s concern for human rights, Mansour said Egypt is “using its relations with Israel as a door to improve its standing with the US”.

Peace talks

Cairo’s invitation to the Israeli prime minister was issued by Abbas Kamel, director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, last month when he met with Bennett in occupied East Jerusalem.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014 and there seems to be little prospect of reviving them. Bennett, a nationalist atop a cross-partisan coalition, opposes Palestinian statehood.

“I don’t believe that there will be any real development during this meeting on Egypt’s efforts to move the peace process along between the Palestinian Authority and Israel,” said Daraghmeh.

“That is purely because Israel does not have a government that will accept the bare minimum of Palestinian demands.”

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