Those who follow Egyptian public opinion can easily detect a harshly negative tone towards the Palestinian factions, especially Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since it imposed its control there in 2006 and has helped to entrench Palestinian divisions. Relations between Egypt and Hamas have fluctuated since then, with the regime of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak enforcing collective punishment against the Palestinians to the extent that Cairo was accused of tightening the siege on Gaza even more than the Israeli occupation itself.
However, following the ousting of Mubarak in the 25 January Revolution, relations with Hamas warmed significantly, and Egyptian intelligence successfully concluded a landmark prisoner-exchange deal between Hamas and Israel under the auspices of the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Since last year’s election of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, relations between Egypt and Hamas can be described as a “strategic embrace”, with both groups sharing similar origins.
Discord in Palestine may have caused important strategic repercussions for Egypt, which has shouldered many burdens because of its historic role in the region and its links to the Palestinian cause, acting as its defender in the most difficult situations. This was the case even during Mubarak’s rule, which some Palestinians say was not as bad as some have claimed. According to Moussa Abu Marzouq, deputy-director of Hamas’s political bureau, Omar Suleiman, the former director of the Egyptian General Intelligence service, was a “patriot who assisted and aided the Palestinian resistance”.
Yet, Egypt is still paying a high price for trying to close Palestinian ranks, something it has been trying to do for the past five years. The rift has also led to Egypt’s constructing a refugee camp in Rafah for those fleeing Hamas’s rule and for supporters of the head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Agency Mohamed Dahlan. Although the number of refugees has now dropped, the camp is still a headache for the Egyptian army, and Muslim Brotherhood Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein told Al-Ahram Weekly that the camp was the responsibility of Egyptian sovereign bodies and not of Hamas or the Brotherhood.
Since the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, Hamas has been perceived as co-responsible for some of the lawlessness that has occurred in Egypt. According to some opinion polls, many Egyptians believe it has become a burden on Egypt, with the group being transformed from being a “thorn in Israel’s side”, as former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon once described it, into being one in Egypt’s side.
It has turned Egypt into the gateway out of the prison that Gaza has become as a result of the Israeli siege and the rift among the Palestinians. Cairo also rejects Hamas’s view that Gaza is “liberated” and not occupied territory, because if this were so the responsibility of governing it would likely be transferred to others, notably Egypt.
A long list of accusations has been made against Hamas, including the security threat represented by the underground tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. A special government department was created under the Hamas government in Gaza to collect revenues of more than $7 billion every year, according to estimates by Egyptian intelligence, as a result of traffic through these tunnels. The latter have developed into a way out from the Israeli siege, with black-market trading leading to the smuggling of commodities such as petrol and diesel fuel, cars and household products, and even jihadists and Egyptian military uniforms.
Major-General Sameh Seif Al-Yazal, a military expert, said the use of Egyptian military uniforms by criminal elements had begun when members of the Al-Nasser Salaheddin Brigades were involved in the Eilat attack in August 2011, one year before the more recent attacks in Rafah. The perpetrators wore the uniforms of Egyptian officers, and when Israeli forces pursued them, believing them to be Egyptian soldiers, they killed five Egyptian soldiers, mistakenly thinking them to have been among the perpetrators. After DNA testing, it was discovered that the culprits had been Palestinians, including Kamal Al-Nerb and Emad Hammad, and not members of the Egyptian army.
These accusations are not arbitrary, according to Samir Ghattas, director of the Maqdes Centre for Palestinian and Israeli Studies, because there is clear evidence of Palestinian involvement. The Egyptian authorities arrested Hamas leader Ayman Nofal, who entered Sinai once the border with Egypt had been opened, along with hundreds of other Palestinians who were released within weeks. Nofal remained behind bars, as he was a leader of the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades. While he was acquitted in court, Egyptian State Security did not release him, and he was only freed when the prisons were unlawfully opened at the beginning of the revolution.
Youssef Abu Zohra, brother of Hamas leader Sami Abu Zohra who died in an Egyptian prison, and Lebanese Hizbullah leader Sami Shehab were also arrested in Egypt when they entered the country via the tunnels from Gaza.
Hamas has also not surrendered the killer of Egyptian soldier Ahmed Shaaban, who was killed during an attempt to storm the border at the beginning of January 2010, even though Egyptian investigators have identified his killer. The Hamas government has barely cooperated in the ongoing investigations into last year’s Rafah massacre, although leads indicate that the perpetrators came from Gaza and were connected to the jihadist and Salafist Momtaz Daghmash group, which has Hamas’s blessing. The aim was to steal Egyptian armoured vehicles in order to kidnap Israeli soldiers along the border at Karm Abu Salem.
Anti-Hamas sentiments among Egyptians began after Shaaban was killed and some days after an admission by Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, a member of the group’s political bureau, to Egypt’s Al-Shorouk newspaper that Hamas was smuggling weapons through the tunnels. Shaaban was killed as he stood on duty on the border, signalling the breaching of Egypt’s sovereignty by Hamas. The act also raised questions about the smuggling of weapons from Egypt into the Gaza Strip and vice versa, these being used in operations against Israel even if Egyptian soldiers were killed.
According to Ali Bakr, an expert on the Islamist groups, for the jihadists confronting the Egyptian army is no problem since they view themselves as fighting the enemy, Israel, even if innocents are killed. Some of their fatwas (religious edicts) have gone so far as to say that victims from the Egyptian army are legitimate targets because they guard the border with Israel and thus are “guarding the enemy”. Bakr said that such edicts sanctioned attacks on the Egyptian army by jihadists who adopt the same approach in Sinai.
The freeing of Palestinian prisoners in Egypt during the 25 January Revolution also appears to have been pre-planned, with these being smuggled through the tunnels to Gaza in record time. This made many Egyptians believe that Hamas had had previous experience in penetrating Egyptian political locations and that it had been involved in much of the lawlessness in Egypt during the post-revolutionary period. Though subsequent investigations have tended to vindicate Hamas, this has not altered many people’s perceptions.
The tunnels also brought many Palestinians to Egypt who purchased land from the Sinai Bedouins as well as homes and plots in Arish during the transitional phase when the army was distracted from its task of ensuring the country’s security by its new task of running the country’s domestic affairs. According to Hossam Al-Shatni, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, many Palestinians do not want to settle in Sinai because many of them already have homes in Rafah and Arish. According to military sources, possible Palestinian acquisition of land was the main reason behind the law regulating land purchases in Sinai, since Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had previously served as head of Military Intelligence and had detailed knowledge of the matter.
Al-Zahhar’s admission regarding arms smuggling through the tunnels has not been the only one of this sort, and the smuggling of arms has now reached record levels. More than 200 arms-smuggling operations have been stopped in Sinai by Egyptian forces, with shipments heading to the Gaza Strip from rugged mountainous regions of Libya and Sudan. A source in Hamas’s internal security told the Weekly that the weapons were sometimes disassembled in order to pass them through the tunnels, especially the heavier weapons, and there were even mobile workshops adapted for this task.
In the past, the army has ignored some of these operations in cases where the arms are passed from homes in Rafah into the tunnels leading into Gaza and evading Israeli spy satellites. Many of these smuggling operations were successful even before Israel’s last war on Gaza that mainly targeted the weapons stockpile smuggled into the Strip after the Egyptian revolution. This war ended in a truce between Hamas and Israel brokered by Egypt, with the latter assuring the US that it would play an effective role in ending the weapons smuggling into Gaza in return for a sustained truce. The army is now closing the tunnels by redirecting sewage through them, causing them to collapse.
According to Lieutenant-General Hossam Kheirallah of the Egyptian General Intelligence, the operations to shut down the tunnels which the army is currently expanding are not based on the four-way agreement with Israel, which only requires the army to stop arms-smuggling operations and confiscate weapons. What is happening today, he said, had also been triggered by the widespread smuggling of the Egyptian military uniforms that the jihadists continue to use. Egyptian police and the army in Sinai have also now built defensive points throughout Sinai in order to combat the lawlessness there, especially after some Palestinians were recently arrested with maps of areas that continue to be targeted by jihadists.
Also on the list of Egyptian accusations against Hamas is the belief that the Egyptian officers who have been missing since the revolution, namely Captain Mohamed Al-Gohari, Captain Sherif Al-Maadawi and Lieutenant Mohamed Hussein are alive and being held by the Hamas government. Al-Gohari’s wife Doaa Rashad expressed this belief in an interview by saying that a mediator has informed her that her husband was alive and in Gaza.
The three officers went to Arish during the revolution and on 28 January were ordered not to return to their posts at a roadblock but to stay in their hotel in the city. According to eyewitnesses, on their way home on 4 February the officers were ambushed by masked men in the vicinity of Midan at the western entrance of Arish. The men stopped their car with automatic weapons and kidnapped them after setting the car ablaze. The car was found four days after the incident near the kidnap location.
While such accusations against Hamas have led to distrust of the group among many Egyptians, others have tried to justify the group’s posture regarding what they view as a planned and systematic campaign by the Egyptian media against Hamas. Abdel-Rahman Al-Barr, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, told the Weekly that Hamas would never harm Egypt’s national security or be involved in operations against its army. He cited the example of the elections to the group’s political bureau that took place in early April under the supervision of Egyptian intelligence, saying that the latter would never have agreed to play this role had Hamas been involved in anything harming Egypt’s national interests.
“I object to the accusations of Hamas breaching Egypt’s national security,” said Major-General Alaa Ezzeddin, former director of the Armed Forces Strategic Studies Department. “It is in Hamas’s interests that relations with Egypt remain strong and close. There is the problem of the tunnels, which is now being dealt with. The reason these remained open is because Egypt did not want to be part of the Israeli siege of Gaza, thereby avoiding an explosive situation which Egypt would suffer from before anyone else. We do not want to work against the Palestinian cause, but we must bring matters under control, which is what we are doing now,” he said.
Osama Hemdan, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, told the Weekly that “weunderstand the nature of the campaign in Egypt and the political conditions that have triggered this campaign to distort the role played by the group. We owe Egypt a lot, and we will be patient. We are also covertly supporting the investigations into the Rafah massacre, though we do not need to reveal this to the media.”
Leading Brotherhood figure and correspondent for Hamas’s Al-Aqsa Television in Cairo Ahmed Sabie told the Weekly that “the media campaign is a plot against President Morsi to distort the public image of the regime and not just Hamas and the resistance factions. Time will show that there are Israeli agents inside the country who are behind this campaign because Israel benefits from it. It was said that Hamas was ready to defend the Brotherhood, but when the Brotherhood’s headquarters in Muqattam were attacked, not a single Hamas member was arrested there or during any other incidents. Hamas should not replace Israel as the country’s enemy.”
Yet, some Palestinians believe that they should not be blamed for Hamas’s mistaken policies, and not all Palestinians are happy with Hamas. “Many Palestinians living in Egypt try to hide their origins,” said Mohamed Abu Shaar, a Palestinian employee at a Palestinian media outlet in Egypt. “Many of them claim to be Jordanian in order to avoid Egyptians hurling accusations at them.”
“This is strange because the Egyptian street was much more sympathetic to us under Mubarak, with many people scorning the Brotherhood now that the latter group has come to power. Because of the Brotherhood’s relationship with Hamas and its sympathy towards the Palestinian cause, we are being targeted,” he said.