Can Gaza's Islamic Jihad ease tensions with Egypt?

Palestinian Islamic Jihad has been exerting efforts to open the Rafah crossing, angering Hamas, which believes the initiative will divide the Palestinian resistance.

al-monitor Palestinians gather at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip as they await permission to enter Egypt, March 10, 2015.  Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

reconciliation, rafah crossing, palestine, muslim brotherhood, islamic jihad, hamas, gaza strip, egypt

Mar 16, 2015

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The efforts of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to restore the relations between Egypt and Hamas have seemingly yielded positive results. These have been exemplified by the opening of the Rafah border crossing on March 8-9, the first time since its closure on Jan. 22. Also, Egypt’s State Lawsuits Authority filed on March 11 an appeal with Cairo’s Court for Urgent Matters to review the latter’s designation of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and the Hamas movement as terrorist organizations.

A source from the PIJ office in the Gaza Strip told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the initiative focused on the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, provided that the Presidential Guard of President Mahmoud Abbas runs and guards the crossing in the coming period. The source said the initiative also focused on the resumption of Egyptian efforts sponsoring Palestinian reconciliation and the defusing of tension between the Hamas movement and Egypt.

Daoud Shihab, the head of the PIJ Information Office, told the pro-Islamic Jihad Al-Istiqlal newspaper, “The PIJ efforts will not stop at this point, and there will be more to serve the Palestinian people.”

A senior PIJ delegation headed by its Secretary-General Ramadan Shallah had concluded a visit to Cairo on March 7 that lasted several days. The move came after the crisis escalated in Gaza as a result of the 51-day war waged by Israel last summer. It also came amid deteriorating relations between Egypt and Hamas due to the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. Hamas has been treated as an enemy of the Egyptian regime, given that it is the arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.

PIJ leader Ahmed al-Mudallal told Al-Monitor on the sidelines of an anti-siege demonstration held on Palestinian Wounded Persons Day, March 12, “We must lift the siege on the Gaza Strip so that all the wounded can receive treatment abroad. The PIJ initiative comes in this context to change the status quo and solve the crisis plaguing our people.”

Mudallal said that the popular and official institutions are satisfied with the PIJ initiative in Egypt, which is a national duty aimed at lifting the siege on the Gaza Strip.

For their part, activists and writers from Hamas criticized the PIJ initiative. Political writer Isam Shawar of Ramallah said in a phone call with Al-Monitor, “The PIJ visit came immediately after the decision to ban the Muslim Brotherhood and the listing of Hamas as a terrorist organization, which made the visit turn out against the resistance.”

He added, “By receiving the PIJ, Egypt wants to say that it does not deem the Palestinian resistance as terrorist. It received the PIJ, but it only considers the Hamas movement as terrorist in a move aimed at separating the Palestinian resistance movements.”

Shawar said the crisis between Egypt and Hamas is too deep to be solved by the PIJ.

Commenting on such criticism, Mudallal said, “We are not expecting to be thanked, and we do not pay attention to people outside the national unanimity that agreed to lift the siege.” He explained that the PIJ is not imposing itself as a substitute for anyone as it is a partner in the struggle and the resistance.

Egypt had asked during its meetings with the PIJ to stop all provocative media campaigns against Egypt and the start of goodwill on the side of the Gaza Strip, which has already appeared in the speech of Ismail Haniyeh, vice president of the Hamas political bureau, when he stressed, on March 6, Hamas’ keenness on Egypt's security and stability.

Over the last six months, crises have accumulated in Gaza as the Palestinian reconciliation stopped, the Rafah crossing was closed for a long period, the electricity crisis escalated, thousands of workers lost their jobs and reconstruction came to a halt.

Asked about these crises, political writer Akram Atallah said the PIJ has indeed brought about solutions and ended the division and despair plaguing Hamas and the people of the Gaza Strip.

Atallah told Al-Monitor, “The PIJ is the most appropriate party to interfere as it enjoys a good relationship with Egypt and the Palestinian president, and the steps it has already made are considered major progress on the ground in light of the difficult situation faced by Gaza.”

He said that if the PIJ initiative continues, it can reach more solutions, such as those in regard to the Palestinian reconciliation, but the Hamas movement still has to hand over the border crossings. “This is an issue as Hamas is talking about full partnership in the crossings and a complete deal within the Palestinian reconciliation. It will not hand over the Rafah crossing alone in light of other problems such as the salaries of its employees,” Atallah added.

Analysts told Al-Monitor that Egypt responded positively to the PIJ initiative because it still appreciates the latter’s position in the recent war, when it insisted, as a resistance movement, that Egypt sponsors the truce agreement with Israel. This asserted the international Egyptian position and led the new Egyptian president toward his first success at the international level by halting the war and firming up the truce.

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