Cairo’s pressures on Hamas paying off but sceptics wary

Sunday 25/06/2017
Increased security. Palestinian policemen loyal to Hamas stand guard as fuel tankers enter Gaza through the Rafah border between Egypt and southern Gaza Strip, on June 21. (Reuters)

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.”