Sinai attacks raises questions about Hamas
CAIRO - A recent series of attacks on military posts in North Sinai ushered in new calls by Egyptian political analysts for authorities to tighten the noose around the Gaza Strip and its ruling Hamas movement.
Analysts accuse Hamas of aiding militants who staged attacks that left 17 Egyptian troops dead and 13 others wounded.
The July 1st attacks were the most brazen as, according to a July 4th statement by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army foiled a plan by Islamic State (ISIS) militants to overrun part of North Sinai and declare it the capital of an Islamic province.
Instead of establishing the capital, however, the militants suffered as many as 205 deaths in battles with Egyptian troops, according to the Egyptian Army.
Now, it is not clear whether a reported improvement in relations between Hamas and Egypt will weather accusations that the movement has been helping Sinai terrorists.
“Hamas cannot easily overcome its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, now crossing swords with the authorities in Cairo,” said Rifaat Sayed Ahmed, head of local think-tank Yafa Centre for Studies and Research. “This harms its relations with Egypt to a great extent.”
An ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas did not seem to favour the ouster by the army of Muslim Brotherhood president Muhammad Morsi in July 2013, even as the Palestinian movement counters accusations, saying what happens in Egypt is purely an Egyptian affair.
A massive Egyptian military campaign in the Sinai peninsula, one that included the demolition of hundreds of smuggling tunnels on the border with Gaza, the continued closure of the Rafah crossing, the creation of a buffer zone on the border and the construction of a security fence, has added to tensions.
Gaza, home to about 1.9 million Palestinians, has been under siege by Israel since Hamas fired civil servants and security personnel employed by the occupied West Bank-ruling Palestinian Authority in 2007. The siege includes an all-out blockade, one that denies the residents of Gaza their most basic needs.
The closure of the Rafah crossing on the border with Egypt choked the coastal territory but Egyptian authorities reopened the crossing for a week in June, amid hopes in Gaza that Cairo would take steps to alleviate the suffering of Gazans. Egypt also allowed the entry into Gaza of badly needed construction materials.
Weeks earlier, an Egyptian court revoked a previous court ruling labelling Hamas as a “terrorist” group like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said he expected recent developments to reduce tensions between Gaza and Cairo.
“It is clear that Cairo is keen to open a new chapter in its relations with Hamas and Hamas meets this with enthusiasm,” Abu Zuhri said.
There has been speculation that Egypt and Hamas might be compelled to cooperate further, in view of the emergence of jihadist Salafism, which supports ISIS, in Gaza. ISIS has vowed to unseat Hamas and occupy Gaza, Israel and the West Bank.
The enthusiasm turned, however, to be short-lived, after the July 1st attacks in Sinai, as accusations were levelled against Hamas’s military wing of complicity in the attacks.
Sharif Hafez, an Egyptian expert on Arab-Israeli affairs, says recent measures by Egyptian authorities on the border with Gaza should be put in perspective.
“Egypt will only seek to contain Hamas until it finishes with its other battles,” Hafez said. “Hamas can never be on good terms with our country simply because it is the same organisation [the Muslim Brotherhood] Egyptian authorities are fighting here.”
Egypt has been cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood since 2013, accusing members of the group of standing behind its persistent turmoil, even as the Brotherhood continues to claim it is committed to peaceful activism.
The claims that Hamas is party to Sinai violence are given credence by statements released by the Egyptian Army.
On July 4th, the army said its troops had aborted a bid to smuggle half a ton of explosives into Gaza through a border tunnel. Military experts say the explosives would have been made into bombs inside Gaza and returned to Egypt for delivery to terrorists targeting Egyptian troops in Sinai.
Abu Zuhri said his movement adjusts border security and protects Sinai’s stability, adding that, soon after the July 1st attacks, Hamas sent extra national security and police to the border to prevent smuggling there.
On July 4th, senior Hamas figure Musa Abu Marzouq, told a pro-Hamas channel that instability in Sinai would reflect negatively on the situation inside Gaza.
“We reach out to whoever rules Egypt because we are talking about the future of the Palestinian people here,” Abu Marzouq said.
He said he found it unfortunate that new attacks take place inside Sinai every time Egypt opens the Rafah crossing but he also expected relations with Egypt to become better in the future.