Gaza pays the price for Rafah attack
Hamas politburo chief Moussa Abu Marzouk tells Amira Howeidy
he suspects Israel infiltrated the terrorist group which killed 16 Egyptian border guards in Rafah
Following the slaying of 16 Egyptian border guards at Al-Masoura border point in Rafah on Sunday Hamas politburo chief Moussa Abu Marzouk -- the 61-year-old has been based in Cairo since Hamas's leadership in exile left its headquarters in Damascus -- finds himself in the eye of the storm.
While no evidence has emerged to identify the perpetrators -- several of whom were killed in Israeli air strikes -- Egypt's media has been quick to blame the massacre on Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and, by extension, Hamas.
A statement released by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on Monday pointed the finger at Palestinian involvement in the attack, claiming the assault was accompanied by mortar fire from "Gaza elements" in the area around the Israeli-controlled Karam Abu Salem border crossing.
"How is that possible?" asks a clearly disgruntled Abu Marzouk. "They're not in the same place."
Al-Masoura and Karam Abu Salem, he points out, are five kilometres apart.
The military's statement, he said, contained "inaccuracies".
"I'm in a position to say that there were no elements from Gaza involved in this terrorist attack."
According to Abu Marzouk, a thorough investigation by Hamas security officials in Gaza of cross-border traffic ahead of, and on the day of, the assault, revealed nothing to support SCAF's claim.
The Palestinian file has long been dealt with by Egyptian intelligence whose new chief, Murad Mowafi, appears to be more popular than his predecessor, at least in Hamas's eyes.
Abu Marzouk says Hamas has conveyed its position on the assault to the relevant intelligence officials. "I think they are competent, have sufficient information and are fully aware of what's happening."
The possibility of Israeli infiltration of the group that carried out the attack cannot be discounted, insists Abu Marzouk. That Hamas's politburo chief is so adamant on the point suggests that Egyptian intelligence, too, is unlikely to have dismissed the possibility.
Military officials have said the attack happened as the border guards were about to break their Ramadan fast. Thirty five gunmen attacked the border post, killing 16 soldiers before stealing two armoured vehicles. One got bogged down in sand dunes while the second stormed into Israel. The Israeli army said it targeted the assailants from the air. It is unclear how many gunmen were killed, or if any managed to escape.
Abu Marzouk finds several similarities between the latest attack and that of 17 August, 2011, when six Egyptian border guards were killed by Israeli fire near Taba.
Both occurred in the month of Ramadan. During last year's incident Israeli occupation forces were reportedly chasing a group that had infiltrated southern Israel and killed eight Israelis. Israel was chasing nine militants, says Abu Marzouk. Like this week's assailants their faces were covered and they carried no form of ID. Their bodies were handed to the Egyptian authorities but until now their identities remain a mystery.
"The difference this time," argues Abu Marzouk, "is the likelihood that the Al-Masoura attack was infiltrated by Israel."
"First the assailants target Egyptian border guards, then they head into Israel only to discover that they're very, very exposed to the Israeli air force which instantly kills them all. Next thing you know Israel is cheering its victory over a terrorist group."
"Instead of arresting the militants, or making any attempt to do so, Israel chose to kill them, making any identification extremely difficult. The Israeli occupation army shelled and completely destroyed the Jeep the assailants were driving, leaving very little for Egyptian investigators attempting to trace the car's origin."
The Israeli operation, says Abu Marzouk, was anything but impulsive.
"The perpetrators could be Islamist extremists but the possibility of them being infiltrated by Israel remains strong." While Tel Aviv projects an image of professionalism and [intelligence] awareness, repeatedly stressing that it had issued warnings of an imminent terrorist attack in the area, it is in fact "realising its objectives as far as Egypt is concerned".
The Rafah border crossing was immediately closed following the operation.
"The Egyptian public is being misinformed about the situation in Gaza and the end result is the collective punishment of Gaza's population" which has lived under Israeli siege since 2007. Abu Marzouk says there are "thousands" of Palestinians stranded at airports, including 1,200 pilgrims in Jeddah, who cannot return to Gaza following the border closure.
But who are the "Islamist", "Jihadist", "extremist" "Salafist" militant groups that have been headline fixtures since the attack?
Abu Marzouk warns against taking such reports too seriously. Global Jihad, the Mujahideen Shura Council and the Soldiers of Islam could easily be one and the same, he says. "It takes four or five people to form such a group. They give it a name then change it later on."
Since taking control of Gaza in 2007 Hamas has confronted a number of incidents in which radical Islamist groups abducted foreigners. It managed to free a BBC journalist held by the Army of Islam in 2008 but last year failed to secure the release of an Italian activist. He was killed last year in response to Hamas's arrest of a radical Muslim cleric.
But such incidents, says Abu Marzouk, remain exceptional. Violent Salafi groups are barely significant "and probably comprise a few individuals, no more"
"Gaza isn't the source of this extremism. It is being exported to Gaza, and Sinai is only a passage."
This is not the story being told by Egypt's media.
Its coverage has provided little in the way of information, though it has laid on the anti-Palestinian sentiment that was a feature of the Mubarak-era. Nor has there been any serious discussion of the failure of Egypt's Armed Forces and intelligence agencies to prevent such a large scale attack in a security sensitive zone.
Abu Marzouk warns against the levels of "misinformation" in reporting the attack. One of the most popular theories to date is that President Mohamed Mursi's decision to "open" the Rafah border crossing allowed extremists easy access to Egypt.
"Let me be clear," says Abu Marzouk. "Rafah border policy hasn't changed since Mubarak's ouster." The only positive development is that more Palestinians are allowed passage "on the days it is open". From 350 to 450 per day, the number has increased to around 1,000.
"This has been the case since SCAF assumed power in the wake of the revolution, well before Mursi won the elections."
The number of Palestinians crossing has increased but everything else remains the same. The border opens irregularly and food, medical equipment and supplies are not allowed but are diverted, as per Israel's demand, to the Karam Abu Salem crossing which Israel controls.
Though the Rafah crossing has been little affected by Mubarak's demise, Cairo's relations with Hamas and other resistance factions has noticeably improved. Abu Marzouk is now based in Cairo with his family, something that would have been inconceivable before Mursi's election. And Hamas premier Ismail Haniyeh, long shunned by Mubarak, received a red carpet welcome in Cairo two weeks ago.
If he is right and Israel was involved in the attack, what kind of message does Abu Marzouk think Tel Aviv is sending?
"It's not just a message. It's an effort to sabotage everything good that has happened, the improvement in dealing with the blockade and Gaza's needs and how Egypt will handle the Palestinian file in the future. There's Sinai, the future of the peace settlement and even the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. Israel wants to maintain the pre-revolution status quo. Their possible involvement in the Rafah attack should be understood within this context."