Egyptian Crisis Reduces Friction Between Israel and Hamas

Article Summary
Both Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza have an interest in preventing a further deterioration on the Egyptian border.

Isn't it ironic that Hamas' best relationship these days is with Israel? This point has not been lost on either party. They remain bitter enemies, of course, but it is also true that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demonstrating that in a time of great uncertainty, it has no interest in toppling “the devil it knows” in Gaza. Hamas, for its part, knows that notwithstanding its deep-seated antipathy toward Israel, raison d'etat [state interest] favors practical cooperation with the Zionist entity on its main project — consolidating its power, authority and well-being in Gaza.

This ability to cooperate, as well as to fight, has been a prominent feature of the relationship since Israel's evacuation of settlements and its army from Gaza in September 2005. Evidence of their joint interest in cooperation is all the more true today, as Hamas feels the bitter end of events in Egypt and Syria, and Israel gets a front row view into the perils posed by failing states on its northern and southern borders.

In contrast to the workmanlike relations between Gaza and Jerusalem, the recent setbacks suffered by Hamas in the broader regional arena have placed the Islamic Resistance Movement in predicaments it could not have imagined when the Arab Spring first blossomed.

Its relations with Fatah are as poisonous as ever. Hamas continues to rail against Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Mahmoud Abbas, currently at his decision to negotiate about negotiations with Israel. It also blames Fatah for the public onslaught against it under way in the Egyptian media. In addition, the movement has burned its bridges with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus and is trying mightily to maintain correct relations with Hezbollah and Iran.

Financial support from Tehran, reduced in the wake of Hamas' dispute with Damascus, is welcome but not critical. It is Egypt that holds the key to Gaza's, and therefore Hamas', prospects. The honeymoon in relations with Cairo is, however, over. Truth be told, the promise of a transformation in Egypt’s relationship with Hamas and Gaza, which the Hamas leadership was not alone in expecting, never materialized during the Muslim Brotherhood's short reign. Hamas' No. 2, Musa Abu Marzouk, acknowledged as much in a conversation Aug. 1 in his offices in a cookie-cutter villa in New Cairo, where he relocated after departing Damascus. Rafah was never opened to trade with Gaza, and the border crossings for Palestinians remained problematic. Mubarak-era restrictions remained largely in place.

Today Hamas is the object of widespread vilification in Cairo, on the airwaves and in the street. Deposed president Mohammed Morsi’s relationship with Hamas is being used by the new regime as a stick with which to beat the Brotherhood and a rationale for unleashing its “security solution” against a violent, armed opposition in Sinai.

Since Morsi's ouster, the Egyptian navy has imposed unprecedented limits on access to Egyptian waters by Gaza's fishing fleet, which is already suffering the debilitating effects of similar Israeli restrictions. In an extraordinary demonstration of the seriousness with which Israel views Egypt's tenuous hold over Sinai, it has permitted Egyptian aircraft to demonstratively, if not operationally, enter Gaza's airspace. Abu Marzouk wrote on his Facebook page that by sending helicopters to fly over the Gaza Strip, “Egypt is signaling that it is trying to restore its sovereignty over the area, which it lost after the 1967 aggression.”

Of greatest concern to Hamas, however is Egypt's unprecedented campaign to destroy the extensive network of tunnels constructed over the years to link Gaza with Egypt. Until recently, the tunnels supplied Gaza with everything from automobiles to toothbrushes as well as guns. A potent combination of factors makes the latest Egyptian effort far more effective than any that preceded it. Neither Israeli nor American pleadings to destroy the system were as effective as the Egyptian military's view that Egyptian national security has suffered as a result of weapons transports and the movement of fighters between Gaza and Sinai.

The closures have already had wide-ranging economic effects on Gaza's tiny, dependent economy, which is chronically prey to the interests of powers greater than itself. The cost is said to have already reached a quarter of a billion dollars. Israel, which championed the original “siege” of Gaza, has now stepped in to reduce shortages in some essential materials created by the tunnels' destruction.

“Israel is making every possible effort in order to enable the transfer of goods into the Gaza Strip given the current policy,” explained an Israeli spokesman. "We emphasize that Israel does not limit the amount of goods transferred to Gaza and that the Kerem Shalom crossing has yet to reach its maximum capacity. As for today, it is possible to transfer 400 trucks every day, but the demand from Gaza is lower, and on an average day we receive requests for about 300 trucks.”

In the last three weeks, 165 fuel tankers have entered Gaza from Israel in response to requests from Gaza, despite Israeli fuel being three times as expensive as the Egyptian product formerly supplied via the tunnels. Gaza is also short of basic construction materials, including cement, bringing a halt to a multimillion-dollar building project sponsored by Qatar. Israel has long refused to supply cement in great quantities.

By taking these steps, Israel is demonstrating its commitment to a relatively strong and viable Hamas address in Gaza. This policy is proceeding along a track parallel and seemingly without any relationship to the recently begun negotiations with the PLO. Gaza, although home to almost 2 million Palestinians, remains all but absent from the US-sponsored effort in both its diplomatic and economic dimensions.

Israel and Hamas long ago struck out on a path far different than the one promoted by the Barack Obama administration between Israel and the PLO. This difference has not prevented, and may even have facilitated, the numerous economic and security understandings between Hamas and Israel reached during recent years, including the current ones.

Israel certainly remains committed to maintaining Gaza on a diet that keeps it just on the side of economic functionality. In the long run, Israel prefers to end its supply to Gaza of everything, from fuel oil to electricity and diapers, but concerns about the destabilizing effects of Egypt’s policy are aimed at preventing Gaza from descending into political and economic chaos. Anarchy in Sinai and Syria are enough. On this, Hamas and Israel can agree.

Geoffrey Aronson has long been active in Track II diplomatic efforts on various Middle East issues. He writes widely on regional affairs and is the author of From Sideshow to Center Stage: US Policy Towards Egypt, 1945–1955.

Found in: israel, sinai, gaza blockade, gaza

Geoffrey Aronson has long been active in Track II diplomatic efforts on various Middle East issues. He writes widely on regional affairs and is the author of From Sideshow to Center Stage: US Policy Towards Egypt, 1945–1955.


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