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Shadow war: Egypt and Iran battle for influence in Gaza

It looks like Khamenei and Hamas leaders agree on everything ... but is the reality more or less than meets the eye? Iran gains traction even with the PA; Egypt looks to take the diplomatic lead; closing the Iranian margins.
TEHRAN, IRAN - JULY 22: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY  MANDATORY CREDIT - "IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER PRESS OFFICE / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei (2nd R) meets Saleh al-Arouri (3rd R), deputy leader of Hamas, in Tehran, Iran on July 22, 2019. (Photo by IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER PRESS OFFICE / HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Two of the Middle East’s fulcrum powers are waging an increasingly bitter fight for influence in Gaza, offering radically different paths forward for the beleaguered Palestinian territory.

For its part, Iran is deepening ties with Hamas, teasing the possibility of a second military front with Israel to complement the threat already posed by Iranian allies Hezbollah and Syria in the north. Closer ties between Gaza and Tehran could endanger the uneasy truce between Hamas and Israel in place since October 2018.

Neighboring Egypt, for its part, is offering an alternative and more pragmatic path. Cairo has led a diplomatic campaign to reconcile Hamas — which governs Gaza — with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which oversees the West Bank and claims authority over Gaza. Egypt also has lines out to Israel to prevent another confrontation over Israel’s accidental killing of a Hamas member earlier this month.

It looks like Khamenei and Hamas leaders agree on everything …

Last week, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei received a senior Hamas delegation in Tehran. The mood was warm and effusive. Khamenei said the Palestinian cause is a “religious matter,” the “first and foremost issue for the Muslim world” and that Iran has never wavered in its support for the Palestinian resistance.

Saleh al-Arouri, deputy chairman of the Hamas political office, responded by insisting that “any hostile action against Iran is indeed a hostile action against Palestine and the resistance movement, and we consider ourselves to be at the forefront of supporting Iran.”

… but is the reality more or less than meets the eye?

“Perhaps in Hamas’ present condition,” writes Shlomi Eldar, “words are important even if they have no connection to reality.”

Hamas cut relations with Syria, a close ally of Iran, in 2012, when popular demonstrations broke out against the Syrian government. This decision upset ties with Tehran, which were never completely severed. Hamas began to reconsider its approach to Iran and Syria in 2017, around the time Ismail Haniyeh became leader of the Hamas political bureau, as Ahmad Melhem explains. Born in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza, Haniyeh, who spent time in Israeli jails, emerged as the most influential Hamas politician inside Gaza, serving as chief of staff to Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and as prime minister after Hamas won elections in 2006.

Iran is counting on the despair and frustration of Palestinians today, especially in Gaza, to bring Hamas even more firmly into the anti-Israel "resistance" camp. Iran thrives in confrontation, not compromise. A more hard-line approach has its constituency, especially in Gaza. A recent poll of Palestinians reflects widespread feelings of abandonment by Arab countries and bitterness over the Trump administration’s peace initiative.

Iran has been consistent in its rhetorical support for the Palestinians, its disparagement of the US peace initiative and its willingness to send money and weapons, including missiles and parts, to Hamas and Islamic Jihad factions.

But getting closer to Iran brings lots of risk. Israel and the United States consider Hamas and Islamic Jihad to be terrorist groups. Israel is unlikely to consider steps to alleviate conditions in Gaza if Hamas takes ties with Iran to another level. And an alignment with Iran would only deepen Hamas’ isolation from other Arab capitals. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has intensified its campaign against Hamas leaders.

Mahmoud Mardawi, a member of Hamas' national relations bureau, perhaps offering some cover for the Tehran meeting, told Al-Monitor’s Adnan Abu Amer, “Iran is backing Hamas, but it is not seeking help from the movement in its conflict with the US, despite Hamas’ supportive stance.”

Iran gains traction even with the PA

PA President Mahmoud Abbas is also seeking new allies and funding, including from Iraq, as Daoud Kuttab reports, and Kuwait, as Abu Amer explains. Both Iraq and Kuwait boycotted the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop, a US-sponsored event, in June, as of course did Iran.

The visit of Nabil Shaath, Abbas' adviser for international relations and head of the PLO’s Refugee Affairs Department, to Baghdad June 23-27 also contained some signals to Iran, writes Abu Amer.

“Palestinians don't have a problem with Iran, as Iran has been supporting the Palestinian struggle,” Shaath said in Baghdad. “We seek to strengthen our relations with Tehran, and we don't consider it an enemy. The enemy is Israel. We, however, do not interfere with Iranian [Persian]-Arab differences.”

Here, too, there may be less than meets the eye. Sure, relations with Israel are at a low, and there is friction with key Arab and international supporters. But Iran seems ultimately a bridge too far for the PA. Shaath’s messaging may be more about keeping good relations all around, especially when in Iraq, and blunting, somewhat, Hamas’ outreach. But it is also a sign of the dire predicament of Palestinian diplomacy in recent years.

Egypt looks to take the diplomatic lead

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who recently extended a countrywide state of emergency linked to threats in the Sinai, as we reported here, has his diplomats working overtime to reconcile Hamas with the PA and, in the process, bring some relief for Gaza citizens suffering under the blockade.

An Egyptian source told Rasha Abou Jalal that the Egyptian plan includes Hamas transferring control of Gaza to the PA, followed by a national unity government that would include Hamas and other factions, followed by elections, and that the PA, as the ruling authority, would be required to pay salaries for government employees and restore electricity and services. That would be a major move, given that Gaza has been under Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007, when Hamas took control from PA security forces. 

Abou Jalal concludes, “The Palestinian public doesn't seem too invested in this rapprochement effort, probably because of repeated failures in the past. However, it's waiting impatiently for a serious Fatah-Hamas reconciliation that would put an end to a dark era.”

Egyptian envoys have also sought to prevent an escalation over Israel’s accidental killing of a Hamas member July 11 on the Gaza-Israel border. Israel has declared the killing a mistake, and Egypt is trying to prevent an escalation while turning crisis into opportunity. According to Ahmad Abu Amer, “Israel gave the Egyptian delegation several economic incentives … expediting the entry of construction material and tools needed to build a hospital in northern Gaza, allowing the entry of Qatari funds to build the industrial zone in eastern Gaza and speeding up the launching of a power line from Israel to the Strip.”

By the way, that it was Arouri, rather than Haniyeh, meeting with Khamenei in Tehran was the handiwork of Egypt, as Eldar and Adnan Abu Amer explain. Haniyeh had hoped to lead a fundraising tour of Iran, Turkey and Qatar — all on Cairo’s blacklist these days. But Egypt prevented Haniyeh from leaving Gaza, so the call went to Arouri, who is based in Beirut.

Closing the Iranian margins

The Palestinian cause has been a mainstay of Iranian rhetoric since the revolution, but Tehran’s influence has flourished only at the margins, among the more radical factions of Hamas and with Islamic Jihad. Egypt, Israel and the West would like to close those margins, not expand them. Doing so requires support for those diplomatic efforts that seek to bring relief to the people of Gaza. 

Otherwise, the road to Tehran is open. 

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