Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Gaza: Make or break

Ahmed Eleiba reports on how Hamas has painted itself into a corner

Al-Ahram Weekly

Cairo received two Hamas delegations last week, one from Gaza, headed by Mahmoud Al-Zahar, the second from Qatar, headed by Moussa Abu Marzouq. The visit was arranged after February’s collapse of the Doha-sponsored talks between arch rivals Fatah and Hamas.

Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mashaal contacted General Khaled Fawzi, head of the General Intelligence Service (GIS), in an effort to open a new page in relations between Hamas and Cairo. GIS, which has long overseen the Palestinian file in Cairo, welcomed the overture.

A week before the visit, Hamas was stunned by two events. The first was the announcement by Egyptian Interior Minister Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar implicating Hamas in last June’s assassination of Public Prosecutor Hisham Barakat. It was the first time an Egyptian official had accused Hamas of direct involvement in a terrorist operation in Cairo.

The second surprise was the Israeli announcement that Hamas has been conducting operations against Israel out of Cairo. On 6 March, the Tel Aviv daily Yediot Ahranot reported that the Israeli security agency Shabak had arrested a Palestinian involved in recruiting young Palestinians in Cairo to join Hamas and other terrorist organisations.

The newspaper cited an official Shabak bulletin saying that the recruiter, Mohamed Nazal, 33, was a member of the Mujahideen Brigades. He came from Qabatiya village in the West Bank and was studying in Cairo, where he tried to build an infrastructure to carry out attacks against Israelis in the West Bank. The report claimed that Nazal sent his recruits to Gaza for training.

Nazal was arrested by Shabak in January and now faces trial before a military court. He is reported to have confessed and furnished information on the smuggling of arms from Libya to Egypt and then on to Gaza. The Israeli report substantiates another accusation in the charge sheet against Hamas, which is that it uses Egypt as a passageway for arms smuggling operations.

One Egyptian official involved in the Palestinian/Hamas file told Al-Ahram Weekly that Hamas has been behind many incidents in Egypt. “It is responsible for securing the escape from Sinai of operatives [wanted by Egyptian authorities] but it does not want to admit its responsibility,” he said. “Egypt has lost all confidence in Hamas because of its repeated ignoring of lists of wanted people whom the Egyptian authorities know are in Gaza.”

Cairo may have hosted the Hamas delegations, but it is unlikely to be willing to turn a new leaf with the group until scores over what Hamas has already done in Egypt are settled.

“The Cairo meetings saw the Egyptian side address old concerns, from Hamas’s involvement in the prison break during the Egyptian revolution up to the assassination of the public prosecutor,” said a Gazan source close to the talks.

“The two Hamas delegations will now travel to Doha to present all the charges, evidence and demands emanating from Cairo to Khaled Mashaal. They will return to Cairo, though they may visit Riyadh and Tehran first,” said the source.

Cairo, which insists on Hamas’s cooperation on security matters, including the handing over of individuals on wanted lists, has released details of meetings held in Gaza, Turkey and Rafah at which the assassination of the public prosecutor is believed to have been discussed. It has revealed that Hamas intelligence officer Mohamed Kamal, aka Abu Omar, trained Egyptians in combat techniques in western Gaza; that Essam Abu Rukba, responsible for Hamas’s assassination squads, supervised the operation; and Ibrahim Sinjab and Khalil Abul-Murr were instrumental in its execution.

Hussein Abu Dayer, a Palestinian tunnel trader working for Hamas, and Abdel Aziz Al-Khaledi, secured the passage of Egyptians into and out of Gaza. Al-Khaledi is a Hamas-affiliated property broker close to the government of Ismail Haniyeh.

A second Palestinian source said the Hamas leadership is now concerned that any failure to cooperate with Egypt may result in Cairo designating Hamas as a terrorist group. Hamas is in an extremely difficult position. It realises it cannot wriggle out of Cairo’s demands, and that Egyptian officials are now in possession of evidence that proves their claims that Hamas has been operating inside Egypt.

Egypt has details of a meeting that took place a month and a half ago between Hamas operatives and Sinai Bedouins at which smuggling operations and terrorist activities were discussed, according to a high-level source. He stressed that the flexibility Cairo has displayed toward Hamas in the past cannot continue unless Hamas abandons activities that compromise Egyptian interests.

Cairo has long asked Hamas to sever its links with the Muslim Brotherhood as a goodwill gesture. It has been rumoured that the request was first made by the head of Egyptian intelligence, but a local source now says that Cairo realises the demand will never be satisfied. This may explain why Hamas official Khalil Al-Haya issued a statement before the planned visits to Cairo saying that Hamas is ideologically, but not organisationally, connected to the Brotherhood.

Riyadh is thought to have made it clear that it would like to see a resumption in relations between Cairo and Hamas, and that the latter should meet Cairo’s demands to facilitate this. An informed source in Cairo says Egypt has no desire to escalate sanctions against Hamas, and certainly not to the point of military intervention in Gaza, but there is little doubt that Egyptian officials are fed up with Hamas’s rule across its western border.

Gaza remains core to Egyptian national security. Hamas misrule there is a constant thorn in Cairo’s side. Yet Cairo remains wary of internationalising the crisis, fearing a regionally based formula could be harmful to Egypt.

Turkish-Israeli consultations over Gaza have raised more than eyebrows in Cairo. Turkey has already proposed the development of a major port in Gaza, to be funded by Qatar. The project would involve the creation of an artificial island and is likely to revive the notion of a Palestinian statelet emerging in the Strip.

On Sunday, Israeli Minister of Intelligence Yisrael Katz seemed to support the port idea, with the proviso that it remain under Israeli security control. Katz was quoted on Israeli public radio as saying the port would alleviate tensions in Gaza and create interests that Hamas would be eager to protect. He alluded to diplomatic efforts to build the port but he provided no details.

Said Okasha, an advisor to Mukhtarat Isra’iliya (Israeli Anthology), a periodical published by Al-Ahram Political and Strategic Studies Centre, argues that while Israel does not trust Turkey it has decided it is in Israel’s interest to push for developments there that run counter to Egyptian national security, not least because this would facilitate the elimination of the Palestinian cause.

At the same time, there is a consensus among the ruling coalition in Israel that the Hamas government in Gaza must be undermined. Okasha says there is a growing realisation among Hamas leaders that their only recourse, if they want to avoid being toppled, is to turn to Cairo.

In the opinion of one informed Cairo source, even if it was in Egypt’s interest to topple the Hamas government in Gaza, there must first be a solution to the crisis between the PA and the PLO. This is why Egypt has urged the PA president and other leaders to resolve their problems with Gaza as quickly as possible. In the process, Cairo has made it clear that the ongoing tensions and conflicts within the PA, and the negative impacts these are having on Gaza, are no longer acceptable.

Hamas, in the opinion of many observers in Egypt, has no alternative but to acknowledge its guilt when it comes to the accusations that Cairo has levelled against it, and then move on to cooperating with Egypt over security matters. It also needs to treat the Palestinian reconciliation process seriously.

If it does not, the group’s days may be numbered. Israel is beginning to sound the war drums again and Iran, a major Hamas funder, shut down the flow of money after Hamas refused to side with it in the civil war in Syria.

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