Hamas, seeking financial help, pledges anti-ISIS cooperation
Cairo - Hamas is turning to Cairo for help in obtaining essential supplies for the 1.8 million residents of the Gaza Strip and end its isolation in return for pledges of tightening control on Gaza’s border with Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and cooperating in its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and other militants.
A high-level Hamas delegation, headed by deputy leader Ismail Haniyeh, visited Cairo on January 22nd, giving Egyptian intelligence officials a list of demands that included a permanent opening of the Rafah Crossing on the border with Sinai. Hamas also called for reactivating trade channels with Egypt and for Cairo to end a blockade of Gaza, which Hamas controls, said Youssef Rezqa, a senior Hamas official.
“In return, Hamas pledged to tighten control on the border with Sinai,” he added. “Hamas views its relations with Cairo very highly, which is why it will do everything in its power to tighten control on the border and prevent possible infiltrations.”
Cairo has accused Hamas of not doing enough to control Gaza’s Sinai border, allowing Islamic State (ISIS) fighters to enter the territory and receive medical treatment there and turning a blind eye to smuggling of arms and explosives to Sinai militants.
Relations between Egypt and Hamas, an ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, deteriorated after the Egyptian Army moved to oust Muhammad Morsi, a long-time Brotherhood member, from the Egyptian presidency in July 2013.
Rezqa said an improvement in relations between Hamas and Egypt would not come at the cost of any of Hamas’s other allies.
Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar told the pro-Hamas news site Alray that an agreement had been reached for tightening control of the border. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry did not comment on the matter.
Analysts said improved ties with Cairo can only benefit Hamas’s interests.
“Living conditions in Gaza have grossly deteriorated because of the imposed Israeli siege on one hand and the closure of the Rafah Crossing on the border with Egypt on the other,” said Mustafa al-Sawaf, a political analyst from Gaza. “A thaw in relations will partially improve the situation in Gaza, in case Egyptian authorities open the border point and allow basic supplies to cross into the strip.”
In his talks with intelligence officials, Haniyeh called for permanently opening the crossing and reactivating trade cooperation with Cairo, Rezqa said.
Even before its leaders travelled to Cairo, Hamas showed signs of goodwill by clamping down on ISIS operatives in Gaza, media reports said. ISIS Sinai retaliated by hindering the smuggling of supplies to Gaza from Egypt through underground tunnels.
ISIS threatened to assassinate Haniyeh if he did not stop the crackdown on its members, Israeli media reported. Haniyeh was to return to Gaza from Qatar earlier in January to prepare for Hamas elections in February but changed his plans because of fears for his personal safety, the Israeli reports said.
Egyptian analysts said Hamas is short of options and must mend ties with Cairo.
“Traditional Hamas sponsors Iran, Turkey and Qatar are busy fighting their own wars,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “This is why Cairo is Hamas’s only option for support now.”
Other analysts said there were limits to what Hamas can offer Cairo. Hamas today, they said, suffers internal rifts and deep financial problems, making it much weaker than it was previously.
A clampdown by Egyptian authorities on smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Sinai has deprived Hamas of an important source of income, analysts said. Egypt’s crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood funding channels also hurt Hamas, they said.
Hamas must, analysts said, walk a fine line between helping Egypt fight ISIS and not antagonising ISIS-backing movements inside Gaza, including jihadist Salafis who can destabilise Hamas’s rule.
“This means that this movement does not have a lot to offer Egypt,” said Egyptian analyst Abdel Monem Halawa. “The other thing is that Egypt does not trust Hamas, which made many pledges in the past to better control its border with Sinai but failed to honour any of these pledges.”