Egyp­tians say Ha­mas is to blame for clashes with Is­rael

Sen­ti­ment changes on Pales­tinian rule

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY MO­HAMED ABDELBAKY, AN­GELA WA­TERS AND JANELLE DU­MALAON

CAIRO | The Pales­tinian mil­i­tant group Ha­mas is los­ing sup­port among Egyp­tians, who in­creas­ingly are crit­i­ciz­ing its role in the vi­o­lence plagu­ing the Gaza Strip and Is­rael.

Once friendly to­ward Gaza’s rul­ing regime, Egypt has be­come wary of Ha­mas mil­i­tants in the tu­mul­tuous year since the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary over­threw the Mus­lim Brother­hood-led ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Mo­hammed Morsi.

Amira Seif El-Din, a 45-year-old house­wife, said she is fed up with mil­i­tants harm­ing or­di­nary people to gain trac­tion po­lit­i­cally or spread dan­ger­ous ide­olo­gies that don’t rep­re­sent Is­lam.

“Ev­ery­body in this re­gion has paid [a] high price be­cause of the spread of ter­ror­ism and ex­trem­ism,” she said. “The prob­lem is very deep.”

Samir Ghat­tas, di­rec­tor of the Mid­dle East Fo­rum for Strate­gic Stud­ies, an Egyp­tian think tank, said that per­spec­tive is com­mon in Egypt. Al­though the vast ma­jor­ity of Egyp­tians dis­like Is­rael and sym­pa­thize with the Pales­tini­ans, they think Ha­mas is pro­vok­ing the vi­o­lence.

“Ev­ery­body here in Cairo and in many Arab cities knows that Ha­mas is be­hind this wave of vi­o­lence in or­der to earn some sym­pa­thy,” Mr. Ghat­tas said.

On Wed­nes­day, Is­rael agreed to a U.N.bro­kered plan for a five-hour “hu­man­i­tar­ian” pause in the hos­til­i­ties, but there was no word from Ha­mas on whether it would ob­serve the pause.

Ha­mas last week be­gan fir­ing rock­ets from Gaza into Is­rael, prompt­ing an Is­raeli re­tal­i­a­tion of airstrikes. Is­rael cracked down on the Pales­tinian group af­ter the dis­cov­ery of three Is­raeli teens who had been killed in the West Bank.

More than 200 Pales­tini­ans and one Is­raeli have died in the fight­ing, ac­cord­ing to Pales­tinian and Is­raeli health of­fi­cials. About 1,500 Pales­tini­ans and sev­eral Is­raelis have been wounded.

As the con­flict has es­ca­lated, con­dem­na­tions of Ha­mas and calls to boost hu­man­i­tar­ian aid for Pales­tini­ans have mounted.

“People in Gaza have suf­fered be­cause of Ha­mas and Is­rael,” said Mah­moud Sead, 20. “It is time that coun­tries like Egypt and Saudi Ara­bia help them with their ba­sic needs.”

Egyp­tians’ at­ti­tudes to­ward Ha­mas are likely to worsen in the wake of the mil­i­tant group’s re­jec­tion of Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del-Fat­tah el-Sissi’s cease-fire plan Tues­day.

Is­rael ac­cepted the pro­posal, but Ha­mas said the plan failed to achieve its ob­jec­tives of lift­ing Egypt and Is­rael’s block­ade of Gaza and gain­ing the re­lease of pris­on­ers in Is­rael. Fight­ing re­sumed af­ter a brief lull while the two sides mulled over the plan.

Ha­mas’ re­jec­tion of Mr. el-Sissi’s cease­fire could stem from the de­te­ri­o­rated re­la­tions be­tween the group and the Egyp­tian govern­ment af­ter Mr. Morsi’s ouster, said Daniel Levy, di­rec­tor of the Mid­dle East and North Africa Pro­gram at the Euro­pean Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions in Lon­don.

Ha­mas is the Pales­tinian fac­tion of the Mus­lim Brother­hood, the multi­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion that vaulted Mr. Morsi to power dur­ing the Arab Spring. Af­ter Mr. el-Sissi de­posed Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s govern­ment la­beled the Brother­hood as a ter­ror­ist group and banned it.

Much of the anti-Ha­mas rhetoric in Egypt could be ex­ag­ger­ated, given that Ha­mas sup­port­ers are less apt to voice their opin­ions un­der Mr. el-Sissi’s regime, Mr. Levy said.

“The fault line of whether Egyp­tians are pro-Ha­mas or not will fol­low the fault line of whether Egyp­tians sup­ported the de­pos­ing of Morsi or not,” he said. “We don’t know how split they are. We haven’t had a gen­uine elec­tion in Egypt.”

For decades, Wash­ing­ton has re­lied on Egypt — the Arab world’s most pop­u­lous coun­try, with more than 80 mil­lion res­i­dents — as a sta­bi­liz­ing force in the Mid­dle East, pro­vid­ing Cairo with mil­lions of dol­lars in mil­i­tary and other aid as it main­tained its peace treaty with Is­rael.

Wash­ing­ton’s in­flu­ence in Cairo waned in the aftermath of the 2011 ouster of long­time Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak, which gave rise to the Mus­lim Brother­hood’s re­turn to Egypt’s po­lit­i­cal fore­front.

In ad­di­tion, Egypt’s re­gional in­flu­ence has di­min­ished since the Arab Spring amid its po­lit­i­cal up­heaval, so­cial un­rest and eco­nomic crash.

Still, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has thrown its sup­port be­hind Mr. el-Sissi, who is un­likely to be able to in­flu­ence Ha­mas the way Mr. Morsi did.

“I don’t think Sissi has the clout the way Morsi did when he bro­kered the last cease­fire,” Jonathan Schanzer, vice pres­i­dent of re­search at the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies, said last week. “He just doesn’t have the clout with Ha­mas that Morsi did.”

Nonethe­less, Ha­mas has found ways to alien­ate Egyp­tians.

Break­ing Egypt’s block­ade, Ha­mas has trans­ported people and goods via tun­nels un­der the closed bor­der be­tween Egypt and Gaza, said Akram Alfy, deputy di­rec­tor of the Al-Ahram Cen­ter for Po­lit­i­cal and Strate­gic Stud­ies in Cairo.

The Egyp­tian mil­i­tary re­peat­edly closes the tun­nels, but more open up, Mr. Alfy said, adding that the cat-and-mouse game has stoked per­cep­tions of Ha­mas as law­less.

“The pub­lic con­sid­ers Ha­mas now as any other rad­i­cal group,” he said.

Ha­mas’ re­luc­tance to rec­on­cile with the Pales­tinian po­lit­i­cal party Fatah, which con­trols the West Bank, also has un­der­mined sup­port for the mil­i­tant group, Mr. Alfy said.

Last month, Ha­mas and Fatah formed a unity govern­ment, but it doesn’t in­clude Ha­mas mem­bers. A true unity govern­ment would bring the two ter­ri­to­ries to­gether un­der the Pales­tinian Author­ity and likely would im­prove the chances of peace, Mr. Alfy said, adding that the so-called coali­tion grants Ha­mas le­git­i­macy with­out re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

“Ha­mas has proved to the Arab pub­lic opin­ion over the last decade that it only cares about its in­ter­ests, ev­ery­thing it does in­di­cates that it has no in­ter­est to ei­ther have rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the other Pales­tinian fac­tions in West Bank or peace with Is­rael,” he said.

Mr. Levy said crit­i­cism of Ha­mas and the wave of sym­pa­thy among Egyp­tians for Pales­tini­ans re­flects a de­vel­op­ment in the Gaza cri­sis. Egyp­tians tra­di­tion­ally don’t hold Pales­tini­ans in high re­gard.

“There is a strand within Egyp­tian na­tion­al­ism which can be quite de­mean­ing to­ward the Pales­tini­ans,” he said.

Now disgusted with Ha­mas, Egyp­tians are view­ing their Pales­tinian neigh­bors — and Egypt’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to them — in a new light.

“I am against all Ha­mas ac­tions,” said Adel Samy, 33, a civil ser­vant. “But in the end we can­not pun­ish the people in Gaza.”

Guy Tay­lor in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle, which is based in part on wire ser­vice re­ports.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

In Is­rael (top), rel­a­tives mourn Dror Chanin, 37, who was fa­tally wounded by mor­tar while de­liv­er­ing food to soldiers near the Gaza bor­der. In Gaza City (above), Pales­tinian rel­a­tives grieve for four boys from the same ex­tended Bakr fam­ily. The cousins, ages 9 to 11, were killed while play­ing on a beach.

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