Egypt watches as Hamas tries to mend fences
CAIRO - Egypt has been cautiously watching fence-mending measures by Palestinian faction Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian group was recently reported to have taken down posters in Gaza linking it with the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent movement of Hamas and an arch-enemy of the Egyptian regime.
The measure comes after a recent meeting in Cairo between a delegation representing Hamas and officials of the Egyptian intelligence agency.
Egyptian observers say Hamas needs to do more than remove posters to reform its relations with Egypt.
“The presence of the posters or their removal has nothing to do with intentions,” said Samir Ghattas, an expert on Palestinian movements and a member of the Egyptian parliament.
“The question now is: Will Hamas stop its tunnel activities, which harm Egypt’s national security?”
Hamas smuggled items such as food, construction materials and spare parts into Gaza, which has been suffering under an Israeli blockade since 2006, through hundreds of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
Egyptian authorities say the tunnels have also been used by militants to enter Sinai and attack Egyptian troops. Sinai has been a hotbed of militant activities and attacks against Egyptian police and troops for more than three years.
Hamas has repeatedly denied Egyptian allegations that it abets militants in Sinai.
Apart from severing links with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was asked by Egyptian intelligence officials to tighten control on the border, end tunnel activity and prevent militants fighting the Egyptian Army in Sinai from crossing into it from Gaza or going into the Palestinian territory for hiding or medical treatment, according to media reports.
Cairo in return promised to reopen the Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only functional entry point on the border with Egypt, so Gazans can enter and leave the Palestinian strip.
The view in Cairo is, however, that Hamas will do little to deliver on its unwritten promises to Egyptian intelligence.
Ghattas says to demonstrate its goodwill, Hamas has to change its constitution, which stipulates that it is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It also has to stop the tunnel activities but this will be very costly to it because the tunnels bring Hamas tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues every year,” Ghattas said.
The Egyptian Army has destroyed hundreds of tunnels, according to its spokesman, Mohamed Samir.
Hamas’s relations with Cairo nosedived in mid-2013 when the Egyptian Army ousted Muhammad Morsi, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, who was Egypt’s president for one year. Gaza’s rulers cheered Morsi’s rise to power, believing that a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt would benefit them against the Israeli siege, which deprives the 1.8 million Gazans of necessities and which translated into public anger against the Palestinian faction.
The Brotherhood regime was, however, short-lived, which forced Hamas to seek regional backers that could bankroll it and give it political support. Turkey, Qatar and Iran, political analysts say, tried to fill that void.
“But with Turkey embroiled in its internal problems, Iran deeply steeped in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and Qatar being eclipsed by Saudi Arabia on the regional scene, Hamas has to mend its fences with its old friend, namely Egypt,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor from Cairo University. “Egypt also wants to draw Hamas to its sphere of influence before it goes into the sphere of any of these regional powers.”
Gaza is at the heart of a current rapprochement between Tel Aviv and Ankara, according to Israeli media, which says that Turkey has tried to convince Israel to loosen its blockade on the coastal territory and allow it to have a seaport.
Turkey is also active in Gaza, offering financial aid, inviting its inhabitants to receive medical treatment at its hospitals and sending construction materials to rebuild its infrastructure, which was devastated during a 51-day Israeli onslaught on the strip in 2014.
Qatar is also present in Gaza.
However, these countries are viewed with some suspicion in Cairo. Egypt has accused both Ankara and Doha of playing a role in its internal turmoil since Morsi’s ouster.
“This is why Egypt wants to ensure that Gaza is not controlled by any of these countries,” Fahmi said.
The meeting between the Hamas delegation and Egyptian intelligence officials was reported to have been mediated by Saudi Arabia.
Paradoxically enough, it came only days after Egypt’s interior minister accused Hamas of killing Egyptian prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat in June 2015.