Egypt and Israel spar over Gaza as Sinai crisis escalates

Article Summary
Egypt-Hamas ties have plummeted while Israel seeks to keep a lid on Gaza.

CAIRO — Former Palestinian strongman Mohammed Dahlan was in Cairo recently where, according to a well-informed Palestinian source, he met with Egypt's military leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Dahlan's effort to return to the Palestinian political and security equation — as one, albeit the smallest, of three centers of Palestinian political gravity dominated by Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — is a measure of both the disarray in Palestinian ranks and, more broadly, the sparring over Gaza being played out between Israel and Egypt.

Since Hamas' bloody ouster of PLO military forces, led by the self-same Dahlan, from Gaza in June 2007, Fatah's leaders, and not they alone, have dreamed of reversing the clock and ruling Gaza once again. Dreaming, however, is all that Hamas' opponents have been able to muster.

Fatah officials hope that the return of the Egyptian military to unchallenged power after the removal of President Mohammed Morsi offers the latest and perhaps best chance to return to Gaza in triumph, with or without Dahlan at the helm. Some believe that Fatah's best opportunity lies in defeating Hamas' rule by increasing broad opposition from within Gaza's population of 1.7 million. Others, among them some opponents of Dahlan, suggest that a Palestinian brigade mustered in al Arish could march on Gaza and, with Egyptian support, defeat the broad array of Hamas forces created in the last decade.

Egypt, however, is in no mood for anything Palestinian, either of the Hamas or the Fatah variety. Not only is Sisi fed up with Hamas, he has more immediate challenges to address than those championed by the PLO. During a recent visit by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), this new line was made clear — Cairo has no interest in mediating Palestinian reconciliation after years in which this dialogue was lead by Egypt's security service. Nor will it respond to Fatah's hopes that Sisi's antipathy towards Hamas could be turned to its favor.

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With Hamas' beleaguered leadership, there is nothing at all for Egypt to discuss. No one dares mention establishing regular trade relations with Gaza via the border at Rafah, a move that Morsi's government, too, refused to implement. Under Cairo's new regime, Gaza's economic lifeline — the tunnels running beneath the Gaza-Egypt frontier — have been all but shut, at a monthly cost of $230 million to the teetering Gaza economy. Unemployment has returned to 2008 levels of around 43%, and exports are just 9% of production.

Ironically, at a time when the regime in Cairo is more hostile than it has been in recent memory to Hamas, and its concern about the national security challenge posed to Egypt by Islamists there and more broadly throughout Sinai is most keenly felt, Israel has emerged as a key advocate of Hamas' continued rule and has taken practical measures to somewhat offset the harder Egyptian policy line. 

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman told Israel's Channel Two in September that only Hamas had the capacity to maintain the commitments agreed to under Egyptian mediation in the wake of the last major eruption of conflict in November 2012.

"What we want is calm and security in the Gaza Strip," Turgeman said. "Hamas, currently the sovereign power in the territory, has the means and the know-how. I see no alternative to control being exercised by Hamas."

Turgeman's comments were new only in the sense that they were declared publicly. Hamas has taken greatest advantage of the opportunities created in the years since Ariel Sharon's 2004 announcement of the departure of permanently stationed Israeli security forces and settlers from Gaza. Israel and Hamas have engaged in an often violent contest over "rules of the game" since then, but they have also established an inherently unstable but nonetheless reasonably successful security dialogue. Turgeman's declaration acknowledges this fact, which is all the more true in light of Israeli concerns that in the wake of Hamas' collapse in Gaza its successors would be the jihadists who are challenging Egypt's rule in Sinai and beyond.

Israel's anxiety about this development established the background to Turgeman's statement, which is only one reflection of Israel's self-interested concern to keep the lid on in Gaza. This concern has also meant that in contrast to Sharon's intention to force Egypt to accommodate Israel's draconian trade and humanitarian policies by opening its borders, since Sisi's offensive in Sinai this summer, it is Israel that has "blinked" — loosening, if ever so slightly, its stranglehold on imports to Gaza.

Mutual agreement between Cairo and Jerusalem on the challenge presented by Hamas/Gaza has not erased the still real and potentially deadly differences of views regarding who will lose most in the event that the understandings — now one year old — of Pillar of Cloud fall apart.

Egypt argues with an insistence rooted in its own national security concerns that it is Israel's responsibility rather than Cairo's to take the lead in attending to Gaza's economic needs. While it welcomes Israel's very limited modifications on its embargo, Egyptian officials also argue that continuing Israeli attacks on Gaza and a broader conflict with Hamas will hurt Israel and its nearby communities more than Egypt. Hamas, for its part, reiterates that Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and beyond are within its missile sights.

But it is Egypt today, more than Israel, that is bearing the main costs of insurrection in Sinai. Here, too, Israel and Egypt have cooperated in unprecedented ways — bypassing treaty restrictions on the battlefield deployment of Egyptian military forces and arms. Apaches and F-16s, albeit inferior to Israeli models, do battle against local and foreign fighters in Sinai. Informed Israelis also speak of unprecedented Israeli-Egyptian intelligence cooperation in the area "beyond anything dreamed of during Mubarak's rule."

The main security challenge from Sinai-based jihadists, however, is moving across the Suez Canal to Egypt proper, threatening to make the Egyptian heartland, rather than the Sinai periphery, the hottest arena of deadly conflict.

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Found in: sinai peninsula, sinai attacks, security, jihadists, israel defense forces, gaza tunnel smuggling, gaza strip, gaza blockade, gaza attacks, egyptian security

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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