Un­easy neigh­bors

Is­rael is keep­ing a watch­ful eye as Ha­mas and Egypt make a last-ditch at­tempt to im­prove re­la­tions

The Jerusalem Post - - FRONTLINES - • By ZVI MAZEL (Reuters)

In late Jan­uary, Ha­mas leader Is­mail Haniyeh was in Cairo at the head of an im­pres­sive del­e­ga­tion to see what could be done to mend the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s rift with Egypt. He met with the head of the Gen­eral In­tel­li­gence Direc­torate, Khaled Fawzi, and this was fol­lowed shortly by a ses­sion with a sec­ond del­e­ga­tion, com­posed of se­cu­rity ex­perts.

Ha­mas is des­per­ate for the Egyp­tian block­ade of its Gaza bor­der to be lifted. Egypt wants that bor­der to be se­cure and de­mands an end to the co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Ha­mas and ter­ror­ists from An­sar Bait al-Maqdis, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that pledged al­le­giance to Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi in 2015 and now calls it­self “the Si­nai Prov­ince of Is­lamic State.” This is the main stum­bling block to a rap­proche­ment be­tween Cairo and Ha­mas.

Egypt has so far been un­able to de­feat An­sar Bait al-Maqdis, in spite of the large num­ber of troops and su­pe­rior ar­ma­ment sent to Si­nai – well above the pa­ram­e­ters set down in the peace treaty with Is­rael, which agreed to the move be­cause the ter­ror­ists are also threat­en­ing its bor­der. There have al­ready been a num­ber of at­tacks, such as the deadly am­bush on Route 12. This week’s rocket fire on Ei­lat is an un­wel­come re­minder of the se­ri­ous­ness of the threat.

Can some un­der­stand­ing be achieved in Cairo, when there are three par­ties with con­flict­ing agen­das – and only two of them are tak­ing part in the talks?

The rad­i­cal Si­nai Prov­ince ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion holds all the cards. Fu­eled by re­li­gious fer­vor, it is en­gaged in guer­rilla warfare with no vul­ner­a­ble ter­ri­to­rial base and with no con­cern about the heavy toll in hu­man life that it is in­cur­ring. While cease­lessly ha­rass­ing the regime in north Si­nai, it is also car­ry­ing out at­tacks inside the Egyp­tian main­land, deal­ing blow af­ter blow to Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah al-Sisi’s at­tempts to sta­bi­lize and im­prove the econ­omy.

The so-called Si­nai Prov­ince of Is­lamic State is also ham­per­ing Ha­mas ef­forts to main­tain the con­tra­band routes through the penin­sula that sup­ply the Gaza Strip with weapons, ex­plo­sives and re­in­force­ments. Ha­mas co­op­er­ates out of ne­ces­sity, and ap­par­ently of­fers sanc­tu­ary in Gaza to wounded fighters from the or­ga­ni­za­tion, let­ting the Strip be used to ex­per­i­ment with new weapons and ex­plo­sives. In re­turn, it re­ceives help in smug­gling mil­i­tary sup­plies and equip­ment through the few tun­nels still work­ing, in spite of Egypt’s de­ter­mined ef­forts to erad­i­cate them.

Ha­mas, though, is chaf­ing at not hav­ing a free hand in Si­nai, and there are signs of grow­ing ten­sions, in spite of the on­go­ing co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the two move­ments. Some 700 An­sar Bait al-Maqdis fighters are al­legedly inside Gaza, and Ha­mas adamantly re­fuses to hand them over to Egypt and lets them re­turn to Si­nai.

That is not to say that there are no other bones of con­tention be­tween Ha­mas and Cairo. The last few years have been re­plete with ten­sions and out­right con­fronta­tions.

Though Ha­mas is a fa­natic Is­lamic or­ga­ni­za­tion bent on de­stroy­ing Is­rael and set­ting up a caliphate on its ru­ins, it is first and fore­most an off­shoot of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, the move­ment that was forcibly ejected from power in Egypt by a pop­u­lar up­ris­ing backed by the army, led by Sisi. The Broth­er­hood was branded a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, and its fol­low­ers are still fight­ing the new regime.

Ha­mas has been in­volved in a num­ber of ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties inside Egypt through its at­tempt to set up smug­gling routes bring­ing Iranian mis­siles, ex­plo­sives and ter­ror­ists from Su­dan to Gaza through Si­nai.

Ha­mas ter­ror­ists took part in at­tacks against Egyp­tian jails at the start of demon­stra­tions against Mubarak in Jan­uary 2011, and helped free im­pris­oned Iz­zadin Kas­sam se­nior com­man­der Ayman Nofel and Sami Shi­hab, head of the Hezbol­lah cell cap­tured in 2009 while plot­ting at­tacks against the Suez Canal un­der Iranian in­struc­tions. Ha­mas ac­tivists ap­peared to have par­tic­i­pated in mass protests against Mubarak in Cairo.

Ha­mas has been ac­cused of hav­ing killed Egyp­tian sol­diers and po­lice­men in the Si­nai Penin­sula, to­gether with ji­hadist or­ga­ni­za­tions. The Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment de­clared Iz­zadin Kas­sam, the “mil­i­tary” wing of Ha­mas, a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, and its ac­tiv­i­ties, as well as those of Ha­mas as a whole, were for­bid­den in Egypt.

At­tempts to have Ha­mas branded a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion as well were squashed, prob­a­bly at the gov­ern­ment’s in­sti­ga­tion, be­cause it is also per­ceived as fight­ing for the Pales­tinian cause, to which Egypt is com­mit­ted.

On the other hand, Ha­mas un­der­stands only too well that its sole ac­cess to the out­side world is through the Rafah check­point, which Egypt opens once a month, and some­times once ev­ery two months, for hu­man­i­tar­ian pur­poses, thus putting enor­mous pres­sure on Gaza. The con­tra­band tun­nels which are Ha­mas’s mil­i­tary and eco­nomic life­line are ruth­lessly de­stroyed by the Egyp­tian Army.

The sit­u­a­tion in the Gaza Strip is dire; elec­tric­ity sup­ply is re­stricted to a few hours a day, and Ha­mas lead­ers are des­per­ate to of­fer hope to a pop­u­la­tion that is begin­ning to grum­ble openly. They would like to see Rafah per­ma­nently open, not only to defuse in­ter­nal ten­sions but also to de­velop sound com­mer­cial re­la­tions with Egypt.

How­ever, ac­cord­ing to leaks from the re­cent Cairo meet­ings, dis­cus­sions are not go­ing well. There is very lit­tle room for com­pro­mise.

Not only will Ha­mas for­ever be the off­shoot of the Broth­er­hood – fo­cus of ha­tred in Egypt – but it will keep on smug­gling ad­vanced weapons through Si­nai, in prepa­ra­tion for yet an­other round of fight­ing with Is­rael.

It will not hand over Is­lamic State ter­ror­ists who found sanc­tu­ary in Gaza, for fear of a frontal con­fronta­tion with the rad­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion and even with its own Iz­zadin Kas­sam wing, which is tasked with re­la­tions with the Is­lamic State ter­ror­ists. The self-pro­claimed Si­nai Prov­ince, which is hold­ing its own against the Egyp­tian Army, and which holds the key to the smug­gling routes, ap­pears to have noth­ing to worry about.

Ha­mas is des­per­ately look­ing for a palat­able com­pro­mise, though it can­not ac­cept the con­di­tions re­port­edly set down by Cairo – end­ing the rift with the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity and agree­ing to a long-term truce with Is­rael, which, in­ci­den­tally, would open the door to eco­nomic re­la­tions.

Ha­mas was re­port­edly also urged to come to an un­der­stand­ing with Is­rael con­cern­ing the two Is­raeli cit­i­zens who crossed into the Gaza Strip by mis­take, and regarding the re­turn of the rem­nants of two sol­diers who were killed dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge.

Nev­er­the­less, in­ten­sive ne­go­ti­a­tions are be­ing held be­hind closed doors – not only be­tween Egypt and Ha­mas but inside the or­ga­ni­za­tion as well. At the same time, Ha­mas is hold­ing se­cret elec­tions to choose a new lead­er­ship. Haniyeh is seek­ing to oust Khaled Mashaal, who is seen as be­ing no longer at­tuned to the plight of the peo­ple of Gaza. Re­sults will be made pub­lic in a mat­ter of weeks.

Will a new team be more amenable to a com­pro­mise with Egypt – or will it choose, out of des­per­a­tion, to pro­voke a con­flict with Is­rael, in or­der to gain the sup­port of the Arab world and cause Europe to ap­ply pres­sure on Is­rael? And what po­si­tion will the new Amer­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tion adopt?

Is­rael is closely mon­i­tor­ing a sit­u­a­tion that could spin out of con­trol, since there does not seem to be a ready so­lu­tion to the stand­off be­tween Egypt and Ha­mas.

The writer, a fel­low of The Jerusalem Cen­ter for Pub­lic Af­fairs, is a for­mer am­bas­sador to Ro­ma­nia, Egypt and Swe­den.

EGYP­TIAN SOL­DIERS stand guard in front of the Rafah bor­der cross­ing be­tween Egypt and the south­ern Gaza Strip.

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