Amid push for Palestinian unity, are Egypt and Hamas friends or foes?

Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh waves before giving a speech in Gaza City July 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem - RC18DA0452D0

 

Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas Political Bureau, and a delegation of senior officials from the Gaza Strip recently went to Cairo for talks about reconciliation with Fatah and the possibility of forming a Palestinian unity government. Hamas’s pledge to dissolve the Gaza Administrative Committee, whose establishment further strained relations between the two factions, and its consent to holding general elections demonstrates unprecedented flexibility on the part of the Islamic militant group.

This remarkable shift is not only confined to Hamas’s stance on Fatah, but also extends to its relations with Egypt and which seemed to have soured beyond redemption following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2013. Hamas is obviously having a change of heart at the moment as it seeks Egypt’s mediation, but Egypt’s position remains quite delicate.

In March, 2014, a court ruling banned all Hamas activities and ordered the closure of all the group’s offices in the country. In January 2015, Hamas’s armed wing, Ezz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, was declared a terrorist group and in February Hamas was declared a terrorist group. In June of the same year, the second ruling was repealed, but the first was not. Another lawsuit was filed to put Hamas back on the list of terrorist organizations and a verdict is yet to be issued.

Those rulings cited Hamas’s rule in compromising Egypt’s national security through taking part in smuggling weapons to militant groups in the Sinai Peninsula and targeting Egyptian civilians and officials in separate incidents including the assassination of Egypt’s Prosecutor General. Added to this is the fact that one of the major charges ousted President Mohamed Mursi face and is currently doing jail time for is spying for Hamas and the fact that Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is designated as a terrorist organization in Egypt. All these factors complicate the situation between Egypt and Hamas and make it hard to envision a possible rapprochement.

Former MP and professor of political science Amr Hamzawy said that Hamas has taken several steps towards making an alliance with Egypt possible, which was particularly shown in the way the movement currently detaches itself from the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamzawy explained that while Hamas’s original charter stated that the Muslim Brotherhood was the group’s patron organization, the updated one does not. “In the updated charter, Hamas dropped the reference to the Muslim Brotherhood and defined itself as a liberation and resistance movement for which Islam represents the final frame of reference,” he wrote.

“During the press conference in which he announced the updated charter, Khaled Meshaal stressed that Hamas has no organizational ties with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and that it remains an independent Palestinian organization that is not subject to any form of outside control.” Since then, Hamzawi added, several Hamas senior leaders stated at different occasions that they respect Egyptian sovereignty and understand Egypt’s security concerns. Hamzawi noted Egypt responded to Hamas’s show of goodwill with the regular opening of the border-crossing with the Gaza Strip and expected more “security-related demands” that Hamas would have would have to comply with if they want to stay on Egypt’s good side.

According to MP and expert in Palestinian affairs Samir Ghattas, establishing ties with Hamas is a strategic decision that serves Egypt’s security in the first place. “Gaza poses a direct threat to Egypt and reaching an agreement with Hamas is expected to curb terrorist attacks in the Sinai Peninsula,” he said, in reference to the reported smuggling of weapons from the strip. Ghattas added that Hamas will be committed to block all sorts of possible passage ways through which militants or weapons can pass from Gaza to Sinai.

Expert on Palestinian affairs Hamza Abu Shanab argued that despite the positive steps takes towards bridging the gap between Egypt and Hamas, future disagreements are expected to emerge. “The two parties do not see eye to eye on a number of issues such as normalization with Israel, the extent to which the siege on the Gaza Strip can be lifted, and how far Hamas can secure the border with the Sinai Peninsula,” he said.

According to writer Samih al-Maaita, the question of whether Hamas’s entities will be disbanded poses a bigger problem. “Hamas has a military wing and security forces that have been working for years,” he wrote. “What will happen to these?”

Maaita added that it is important to take into consideration that Egypt was not Hamas’s first choice. “Hamas entered into a number of alliances that had a negative impact on its relations with neighboring countries, especially heavyweights like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and this is when it started changing its strategy,” he wrote, adding that the sustainability of this alliance might also be put into question like its predecessors.

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