Cairo’s pressures on Hamas paying off but sceptics wary
Cairo- Egyptian pressure on the Palestinian movement Hamas appears to be paying off following a meeting between Egyptian intelligence chief Khaled Fawzy and senior Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar in Cairo.
Hamas has increased security along the Sinai-Gaza border following accusations that arms and militants were being smuggled into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula via the group’s network of tunnels.
Isolating the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula from resupply and reinforcement is a major part of Cairo’s strategy in its campaign against Sinai Province, an ISIS-affiliated extremist group.
The move comes after Hamas has reportedly seen a reduction of aid and support from its main backer Doha because of the diplomatic crisis with other Gulf countries and Egypt, prompting Hamas to recalibrate its regional positions, particularly regarding Cairo.
“Relations with Egypt are going well and have improved. There is an Egyptian understanding of the crisis in Gaza and there was a readiness by Egypt to play an important role [in solving the crisis],” deputy Hamas chief Khalil al-Haya said June 18 after the meeting in Cairo.
Haya’s conciliatory tone, along with comments that securing the Gaza-Sinai border represented a “joint interest” with Cairo, could indicate a change in the Palestinian group’s position.
Analysts warned, however, that Egypt must offer concessions as it raises pressure on Hamas to avoid overplaying its hand.
“This should not, however, embolden Egypt into putting too much pressure on Hamas and Gaza because this pressure could backfire in the end,” said Egyptian military expert Mamdouh al-Kidwani. “Depriving 2 million people living in Gaza of necessities could create an explosive situation that would endanger Egypt’s security.”
Cairo has, since the meeting, eased restrictions on the Gaza Strip and provided relief for Gazans, including delivering diesel fuel to the Palestinian enclave to counter an electricity crisis.
Cairo opened the Rafah border crossing on June 21 to allow shipments of fuel for Gaza’s power plants to enter. Additional assistance is expected in the coming weeks.
In return, Cairo has called for Hamas to change its position on a number of issues, including surrendering Muslim Brotherhood fugitives believed to be hiding in Gaza; severing ties with ISIS in Sinai; handing over intelligence about ISIS and demolishing tunnels between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.
The view in Cairo is that Hamas’s cooperation would help the Egyptian Army in its fight against Sinai Province, part of a strategy that includes Bedouin tribes to fight the group.
“This cooperation will help the [Egyptian] Army better control the situation in North Sinai where the activities of ISIS militants are concentrated,” said Tarek Fahmy, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Hamas can significantly improve the conditions of Gaza residents if it demonstrates signs of goodwill.”
Relations between Cairo and Hamas have historically been strained due to the Palestinian group’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. After the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi in July 2013, relations between Cairo and Hamas deteriorated significantly, with reports of Hamas fighters taking up arms against Egyptian police and security forces in the Sinai Peninsula.
Hamas’s new reality, shorn of critical support from Doha, has prompted a course correction. However, improved Egyptian-Hamas relations comes with its own issues, with reports that Hamas fighters could quit the group to join more radical jihadist organisations that oppose the Egyptian government.
Many Egyptians are sceptical about Hamas’s ability to change, particularly regarding promises to increase border security and halt smuggling that secures it an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
“This is why I look with doubt at pledges by Hamas to act against the smuggling tunnels,” said Samir Ghattas, a member of the Egyptian parliament and a specialist in Palestinian affairs.
“These tunnels are the backbone of Gaza’s economy, which means that this economy will fall apart if they are destroyed. This is why Hamas grits its teeth every time the Egyptian Army discovers and destroys smuggling tunnels.”