Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Signs of change by Hamas

There are clear signs that Hamas is moving towards a strategy of repairing relations with Egypt, reports Ahmed Eleiba

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Al-Ahram Weekly

A Hamas delegation returned to Cairo in the middle of last week following a four-day visit to Doha to consult with the Hamas political bureau. The chief of the bureau, Khaled Meshaal, lives in the Qatari capital. The head of the Hamas delegation to Egypt, Mahmoud Al-Zahar, predicted that the Hamas leadership’s response to Egypt’s demands would be positive.

The Hamas delegation visited Cairo last week after Egypt officially accused the movement of having been directly involved in the assassination of the country’s top public prosecutor, Hisham Barakat. Observers say that Hamas wants to mend its frayed relations with Egypt. Rather than disclose via the press or other channels what occurred during its meetings with Egyptian intelligence officials, however, Hamas has initiated a number of confidence-building measures.

Its security apparatus arrested a number of jihadist Salafist leaders who most likely belonged until recently to the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing. It is believed that these individuals will be interrogated in connection with the security situation in Sinai.

Another confidence-building measure was taken in the direction of Hamas dissociating itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, which is accused of responsibility for acts of violence in Egypt. Hamas has removed posters of Brotherhood leaders that were displayed in the streets of Gaza, most notably pictures of founder Hassan Al-Banna and former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.

It also took down posters of the Brotherhood’s regional sponsors, the Qatari emir and the Turkish president.

A Palestinian diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly that there are clear signs that Hamas has moved towards a strategy of repairing relations with Egypt as “a major priority” and in response to the pressures it is facing.

The allegations implicating Hamas in the assassination of Barakat and the campaign against the organisation in the Egyptian press have severely damaged its image among the Egyptian public, which has always been one of the most important bases of support for the Palestinian cause.

Hamas also has no desire to permanently alienate the Egyptian leadership because of the unique role Egypt and the Egyptian leadership have played with respect to the Palestinian question.

The diplomat added that geography had been instrumental in compelling Hamas to make concessions. “It is now required to give guarantees concerning borders in accordance with a mechanism that might call for the return of the presidential guard,” he said.

An important part of current concerns relates to the security question in Sinai, with respect to which Hamas is expected to make progress on investigations into operatives involved in the violence there.

“Either Hamas is to interrogate the suspects and notify the Egyptian authorities of the results or it is to hand over the suspects to Egypt,” the diplomat said, adding that Hamas would also be expected to cooperate more effectively in tightening security along the border.

 “The nature of the relationship is different from what it was, as it is now defined by an element of self-defence on the Egyptian side, especially as the matter pertains to national security,” he said. On Hamas’s disassociation from the Muslim Brotherhood, he said, “The Hamas actions thus far have been formal measures, and it still has a long way to go and there are many obstacles ahead.”

A precedent was set by the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood when it severed its ties with the mother organisation in Egypt. “We will have to wait to see what policies Hamas puts into effect after the delegation returns to Gaza,” the diplomat said when asked why Hamas has not done the same.

“We will also have to see what Egypt offers with regard to the Palestinian situation. There is a joint initiative, the success or failure of which ultimately depends on Hamas.”

Egypt had asked Hamas to tighten border controls and to cooperate with Egyptian security agencies on matters affecting security on the Egyptian side. This includes preventing any movement of jihadist Salafist operatives from Gaza to Sinai and stopping all interventions in Egyptian affairs, even by means of the media.

On the question of Hamas demands concerning the Rafah border crossing, Cairo holds that these are contingent on progress in the Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation process. This tosses the ball back into the Hamas court, as Hamas has been accused of obstructing this process.

It is important to note that a Fatah delegation visited Doha at the same time as the Hamas delegation, though the visit lasted only one day. Palestinian sources also say that there are signs that the Palestinian dialogue will resume again.

Hamas has received other demands from Cairo. It claims that four Al-Qassam Brigades members are under arrest in Egypt, and has asked Cairo to hand them over to Gaza. It has also called on Cairo to cease “instigations” against Hamas in the Egyptian press and to support calm on the Israeli side.

According to sources from Gaza and Hamas itself, the movement is fracturing. Rifts are widening in its military wing, and it appears that part of it is moving towards creating an Islamic State (IS) affiliate in Gaza that could launch attacks against Egypt and try to join up with the so-called Sinai Province.

Hamas has arrested a large number of jihadist Salafist leaders in Gaza, including Wael Hassanein. This has incensed members of the movement who believe that the leadership is taking such steps to meet Egyptian demands.

Hamas has also interrogated leaders of the Tawhid Brigade, which is headed by former leaders of the Nasser Salah Al-Din Brigades, which was once been close to Hamas. From the Egyptian perspective, the arrests and interrogations are signs that Hamas is serious about responding to the demands that Cairo has been making for years without receiving any appropriate response.

In a previous interview with the Weekly, Al-Zahar said that the people the Egyptian authorities wanted to investigate “had no relationship to hostile acts against Egypt”, and added that “the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah wants to damage their reputations”.

Something of a different order is happening in Gaza today. At least five Al-Qassam Brigades leaders have split off from the Hamas military wing and fled with their families via the tunnels to Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid to join the IS-affiliated Sinai Province.

Of particular interest is Mohamed Abu Shawish (Abu Malek), who served as a special assistant to the Al-Qassam Brigades commander in Rafah. He was also responsible for military supplies and founded the Brigades’ “military elite unit”. Others are Abdel-Wahed Abu Adhra, deputy commander of a Hamas military regiment in Rafah, and Tareq Badawan, a member of the Al-Qassam Brigades elite corps.

Mohamed Abdel-Meguid, a researcher on Islamist groups in Gaza who is familiar with recent developments, told the Weekly, “Fissures are threatening the coherence of Hamas and its military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades. Some believe that it has been infiltrated by Daesh [IS] in Gaza, and there are indications to this effect, for example in the role that Daesh played in the Yarmuk Refugee Camp and the anger among jihadist Salafists in South Rafah, and the Martyr Omar Abu Hadid Brigades in particular, against Hamas security.”

Abdel-Meguid continued, “Perhaps there are also sleeper cells. Another sign is that 13 of those who were killed in Iraq, Syria and Libya were individuals from the Palestinian resistance factions, mostly from the Al-Qassam Brigades, who had recently joined Daesh.

“Badawan’s brother was among those killed in Iraq. This means that there are those who see Sinai as a corridor to Libya, Iraq or Syria, and who will try to keep the lines of communication open with the jihadist Salafists in Gaza.”

On the movement’s new strategic orientation, Mohamed Gomaa, an expert on Palestinian affairs at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said that Hamas is under enormous pressure from Cairo, which had “had it up to here” with the movement.

Gomaa added in an interview with the Weekly that he is not convinced by Cairo’s demand that Hamas sever its links with the Brotherhood. “I believe that Cairo does not want to pressure Hamas to the very end, as it is in its interest to maintain a link with the movement. Hamas, for its part, needs Cairo as Egypt is its vital gateway to the outside world.”

According to a Palestinian source in Gaza, Hamas has asked for Cairo’s approval for the construction of a seaport in Gaza, a project supported by Turkey, Qatar and Israel. Israel believes that the project will alleviate some of the strains due to its long blockade of the Strip.

According to the Palestinian source, Hamas officials have discussed the possibility of placing the matter “under the management” of the Egyptian General Intelligence Agency but the latter has firmly rejected the idea.

Hamas is clearly in a dilemma and is threatened from within, as well as ideologically, politically and geopolitically. In addition to the blockade, which restricts the movements of its members and has caused its popularity to decline, it is facing new and unfamiliar problems, most notably the threat from the growing jihadist Salafist and pro-IS trends in Gaza and the implications this has for Hamas and for its relations with Egypt.

At the same time, there is a growing Shia presence in Gaza, if to a much lesser extent, as epitomised by the “Saberin” Shia Movement. Such developments are forcing Hamas to develop a different level of cooperation with Egypt.

Hamas is also pressured by economic difficulties in Gaza. Some Hamas-linked interests, including companies and a university, have gone bankrupt, indicating that the movement is on the verge of an economic crisis that may compel it to accept wider concessions. If it does not measure these appropriately, it may end up hastening its own demise.

Another ominous shift for Hamas recently came from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which turned down requests from Hamas to visit Riyadh and Kuwait during a tour that was also to include Ankara and Tehran, according to sources close to the movement.

Hamas leaders have interpreted the refusals as a message from the Gulf that Hamas had better work more closely with Egypt before knocking on other doors.

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