Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1397, (7 - 20 June 2018)
Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Issue 1397, (7 - 20 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Options in Gaza

New factors have emerged in the Gaza Strip that may mean Egypt needs to formulate new ways of handling the Hamas government to ensure its national interests and security, writes Mohamed Gomaa

For the past 11 years, Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip has presented a challenge to four of Egypt’s main strategic political and security objectives.

The first of these is the need to control security conditions in Sinai and lower the ceiling of the multiple threats there by restraining jihadi Salafi movements and halting cross-border smuggling between Egypt and Gaza. The second is maintaining peace with Israel. The third is helping to propel the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward, and the fourth is sustaining Egypt’s role as the prevailing regional power in Gaza in the face of regional competitors such as Iran, Qatar and Turkey.

To neutralise an actor such as Hamas that can perhaps best be described as a corruptive influence situated directly across the Egyptian border, Cairo has had several options including active military engagement in Gaza either to restore the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) internationally recognised authority or to create another mode of government or control. This military option has been ruled out for innumerable reasons.

Other options include the active opposition to Hamas rule. Cairo has acted on this by closing the Rafah crossing to the Gaza Strip and only opening it in coordination with the PA, apart from in the exceptional circumstances discussed below. A further option is devising a formula for the limited acceptance of Hamas rule in Gaza. 

Egypt’s policy has fallen somewhere between the second and the third options. It could be termed the “flexibility” option, or the one that has fluctuated between a commitment to closing the Rafah crossing and its reopening from time to time for humanitarian purposes.

Between adhering to a blockade, the purpose of which is to topple Hamas, and a policy of lenience, the purpose of which is to prevent humanitarian disaster, Cairo has wanted to compel Hamas into making concessions in the framework of the Palestinian-Palestinian dialogue. The Rafah crossing has played a central role in both as a pressure valve to forestall explosion and as a way of “turning up the heat.” 

However, two new factors have emerged that raise questions about the course Egypt has followed. If this course is no longer applicable, Cairo will have to formulate another option in order to ensure its vital interests and national security.  

The first of these two new factors concerns the US approach to the situation in Gaza. On 13 March, Washington hosted a meeting attended by representatives of 19 states, including several Arab states, to discuss the Gaza crisis. There were no Palestinian representatives at the meeting. 

However, any haste in searching for solutions to the Gaza crisis in the absence of the PA will be interpreted by Hamas as its international and regional acceptance as the de facto authority in the Gaza Strip. This could encourage Hamas to try to barter with Egypt over the price Cairo would need to pay to preserve its preeminent role in Gaza at a time when regional competitors such as Qatar, Iran and Turkey are jockeying to increase their influence.

The second factor is PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s deteriorating health and the uncertainty surrounding his successor. The Palestinian government is currently in a “caretaker” situation, and not only is the identity of Abbas’s successor unclear, it is also uncertain whether he will be succeeded by one person, two persons or even more than two. 

In the absence of a Palestinian vice-president, or equivalent, universally recognised as qualified to step into Abbas’s shoes, conflict between contenders of roughly equal status will be almost inevitable. 

In the face of such uncertainties, there are two possible scenarios, each presenting its own set of challenges. In the event of the failure (at the Palestinian, Arab and international levels) to ensure a smooth transition to Abbas, conflict over the succession will likely generate new complexities that will deepen the rift between the West Bank and Gaza and broaden the distance between Gaza and the PA. 

In the event of a smooth transition that averts the eruption of any internal conflicts in Fatah, which leads the government in the West Bank, the new Palestinian leadership will need to address the stalled Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation process. 

However, it will be in a weaker position with respect to Hamas than was the case under Abbas, especially as the new leadership will not be the product of an electoral process.

 

NEW OPTIONS: These two new factors have not only stirred controversy over the value of recycling the same strategy towards Gaza, if with some increasing openness to Hamas, but they have also given rise to the view that now is the time to up the pressure on Hamas, causing it to make concessions that will lead to tangible change in Gaza and an end to its monopoly on power.

Advocates of this view say that pressure needs to be brought to bear on Hamas before Washington’s approach of delinking Gaza from the West Bank takes effect, even if it remains politically and legally unrecognised, and before the reality of the succession to Abbas hits home with all the new dynamics it will engender that could work to strengthen Hamas’s hand. 

This is the time to up the pressure on Hamas because it will be much harder to obtain concessions later, such advocates say. 

However, formulating a new strategy towards Hamas and Gaza is a complicated process contingent on a number of variables that need to be reassessed. Perhaps the best starting point is to try to answer questions such as the following:

First, how far has the Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 (COS 2018) progressed? Has it reached the point where it can be said that this Operation has largely succeeded in neutralising Gaza as a factor in the current security situation in Sinai? Would it be possible to exclude Hamas as a source of adversary influence in Sinai should it decide to make trouble in the event of a marked deterioration in its relationship with Cairo?  

Second, how involved is Cairo in the question of the political transition in the West Bank? Does it have clear answers? And could a smooth and definitive post-Abbas transition be achievable?

Unless answers to these questions are forthcoming, Cairo will have no alternative but to continue to expand its mutual understandings with Hamas instead of engaging in a zero-sum game that could drive it into the arms of Egypt’s regional adversaries and enhance its strength as a destructive force that supports the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and hampers Egypt’s ability to sustain its dominant influence in Gaza. 

At the same time, we need to recognise that this option will have mixed strategic effects in the medium term. Egypt will benefit in the foreseeable future, but it will suffer from the option’s drawbacks in the long run. 

What is certain is that it is in Egypt’s interest to retain its cards against Hamas in view of the potentially adverse effects of changes in the international handling of the Gaza crisis, the dynamics of which would be aggravated by any internal Fatah power struggle over the succession to Abbas.

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