Hamas-Egypt relations, tense since the Gaza war, worsened after Hamas refused to sign the Egypt-brokered reconciliation agreement with Fatah. The Egyptians, who had prior to the war turned a blind eye to the intensive smuggling via the Rafah tunnels, realized that the continuation of this activity threatened their interests, and decided to act resolutely to restrict it. They closed many of the tunnels and erected the "steel barrier" along the border, enraging Hamas and further straining relations – to the point where Hamas accused Egypt of participating in besieging Gaza.
Following the revolution in Egypt, in early 2011, Hamas-Egypt relations improved. Hamas' leaders welcomed the Egyptian revolution and a Hamas delegation even visited Egypt and met with its new foreign minister. The Egyptians, for their part, opened the Rafah crossing in May 2011, and also played a key role in achieving the recent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.
Tensions Following Hamas's Refusal to Sign the Egyptian-Brokered Agreement of Reconciliation with Fatah
In late 2009, Egypt harshly criticized Hamas's refusal to sign the reconciliation document, and even canceled a Hamas delegation's visit to Egypt. It accused Hamas of evading reconciliation, and rebuked its leaders, saying that they should "regard Egypt in accordance with its weight and importance, and not as a [mere] organization, movement, or faction."
Khaled Mash'al claimed that the reconciliation efforts had failed due to U.S. intervention. A columnist for the Egyptian daily Al-Akhbar, Jalal Dweidar, said in response that Mash'al's statement was "a clear accusation that Egypt accepts U.S. dictates regarding the reconciliation [process]." He added: "We advise the mujahid Mash'al – who knows that the louder he shrieks the more richly Iran will reward him – to stop talking rubbish."
Mash'al also accused Egypt of participating in the Gaza siege by erecting the steel barrier between Gaza and Egypt and by restricting the movement of Hamas leaders. He said: "For years now, Gaza has been suffering from a blockade, from hunger, and from the closing of the crossings, and now it is suffering from the steel barrier that is being built between Gaza and Egypt. We have voiced harsh criticism over this and demanded that Egypt stop the construction of this barrier. A senior Hamas source reported that Egypt "had refused to let Hamas's health minister leave via the Rafah crossing for a medical conference in Algeria."
Only following the events of the 2010 Gaza flotilla did Egypt agree to open the Rafah crossing for an unspecified period, probably in order to deflect the accusations that it was aiding the siege on Gaza. This step, however, did not improve Hamas-Egypt relations. In an interview with the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, senior Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahhar was asked whether the distribution in Gaza mosques of the magazine Sawt Al-Murabitoun, which contains brutal attacks on Egypt, was an indication of Hamas hostility towards Egypt. He answered: "[Then-]Egyptian foreign minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit surprised us by making statements that provoked many people, so [these people] attacked him. But our relations with the [Egyptian] intelligence apparatus are good." In response, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki warned the Hamas leaders to stop their "provocations against [Egypt]," warning that if they did not, Egypt's response would "embarrass them greatly." In another interview, Zaki said: "Mahmoud Al-Zahhar does not understand Egypt's foreign policy... [then-]Egyptian foreign minister Abu Al-Gheit... does not require a stamp of approval from anyone... Hamas' attempt to drive a wedge [between Egyptian leaders] is naïve, and it has already failed in the past."
Hamas also hinted at Israeli-Egyptian collaboration against it. A writer on a Hamas-affiliated website, Muhammad Al-Masrouji, expressed concern that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Cairo "would supply [Israel] with a cover for its next war, on the assumption that Israel and Egypt are collaborating... [This visit may herald further Israeli aggression], just as [then-]Israeli foreign minister Tsipi Livni's meeting with [then-Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak in Sharm Al-Sheikh [heralded] the attack on Gaza [in December 2008]."
Tensions Due to Egyptian Anti-Tunnel Activity, Reciprocal Arrests
In July 2010, Egyptian security sources said that "Egypt has uncovered and destroyed over 400 tunnels." In April 2010, when Hamas claimed that the deaths of four Gazans in one of the tunnels had been caused by poison gas pumped into the tunnel by Egypt, Hamas spokesman Abu Zuhri said: "We condemn the killings in the tunnels. The number of victims has reached 105. Forty of them died of poison gas and sewage [that the Egyptians had directed into the tunnels]... The use of the tunnels is a necessity... The alternative is not killing innocent people but opening the [border] crossings."
The Egyptians denied Hamas' allegations, explaining that the four allegedly killed by poison gas were actually killed while trying to repair some cracks, which caused part of the tunnel to collapse on them. The poison gas rumor, they added, had been spread by the owner of the tunnel, a Hamas member named Ibrahim Al-Sha'ir, who was trying to shirk responsibility and thus avoid compensating the victims' families. The Egyptians added that Hamas had tried to exploit the incident to its advantage: "It helped the owner of the tunnel to transport the victims to the hospital, and asked the head of surgery to determine that their deaths had been caused by poison gas, but he refused. [However], following pressure from Hamas, [the head of surgery] issued a report closer to [the version] demanded [by Hamas, writing]: 'There are claims that an explosion of gas inside the tunnel had caused the [victims'] death.' This report [actually] confirms that the cause of death was not poison gas, this being no more than a false allegation."
Sawsan Al-Barghouti, a columnist on a Hamas-affiliated website, attacked Egypt in one of her columns, and called on the Egyptian people to take action: "Shahids are dying of poison gas sprayed [into the tunnels], at the same time that Egypt is supplying Israel with life-sustaining [cooking] gas... This is a new Nazi crime in Arab guise... We call on the Egyptian leaders to forget Palestine and the Palestinian people, and to take their black hands off us. [At the same time,] we call on the people in the glorious [land of] Egypt not to forget its homeland, which is dear to all of us, and to take steps to liberate itself from the shackles that cause Egypt's honor [to suffer] and our hearts to bleed."
During the same period, following rumors that Israelis had been abducted in Sinai, Egypt demanded that Hamas close the tunnels so that they would not be used to transport the abductees into Gaza. Hamas complied, but only for a few hours. In August 2010, Egypt seized 190 rockets designated to be smuggled into Gaza, among them anti-tank missiles.
On May 1, 2010, Egypt beefed up its troops along the Gaza border, following intelligence that Gazans planned to stage demonstrations there to demand the opening of the Rafah crossing. Further indications of the tension between the two sides followed: On May 12, 2010, the Palestinian security services discovered a bomb next to the Egyptian Embassy in Gaza. On the same day, a Palestinian fisherman was killed when his boat collided with an Egyptian coast guard vessel; senior Hamas official Salah Bardawil said that his killing had been deliberate.
After the brother of Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri died in an Egyptian prison, Abu Zuhri blamed Egypt, claiming his brother had died of torture. A Hamas-affiliated website presented testimony by a former prisoner who confirmed this claim, saying: "Yusouf Abu Zuhri died at the headquarters of the Egyptian security apparatus as a result of brutal torture, including electric shocks."
Relations hit a new low when Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hammad announced that his security apparatuses had arrested an Egyptian officer who had infiltrated Gaza to gather intelligence. Upon returning him to Egypt, Hamas demanded the establishment of a joint security committee to coordinate between the two sides.
In September 2010, tensions between Hamas and Egypt intensified, following the latter's arrest of a senior security officer from Hamas, Muhammad Dababesh, on suspicion of involvement in the smuggling of funds and weapons. Hamas condemned the arrest and accused Egypt of pursuing a policy that harmed Hamas and the Palestinian people. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that allowing Dababesh into Egypt and then arresting him was an act of deception.
Later in September, Egypt agreed to release Dababesh, as well as Muhammad Na'im, the son of Hamas's health minister, who had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in attempts to smuggle gold and silver into Gaza. Despite this, Hamas official Salah Bardawil characterized Hamas-Egypt relations as very poor, saying that Egypt was pursuing Hamas and pressuring it on the political and security levels. Hamas's magazine compared an Egyptian prison where Palestinians are incarcerated to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Egypt, for its part, criticized Hamas over its policies in Gaza. After Hamas raided the premises of the Gaza Journalists' Union and shut it down, the editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Masa, Khaled Imam, accused Hamas of gagging all its opponents.
Following Egyptian Revolution, Hamas-Egypt Relations Improve
Hamas's leaders found it difficult to hide their satisfaction at the downfall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Hamas political bureau head Khaled Mash'al said: "We are overjoyed at the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which has given us a new lease on life... The Egyptian revolution is outstanding; it is perhaps the most glorious nonviolent popular revolution in human history. Bless the hands of the Egyptian people, [both] Muslim and Christian, that have swept away the filth that had been forced upon them against their will.
In a phone conversation, Hamas Prime Minister Isma'il Haniya congratulated Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, the head of the International Union of Muslim Clerics, on the success of the revolution and on the sermon he had given in Cairo's Al-Tahrir Square. He praised Al-Qaradhawi for endorsing the Palestinian cause and for promoting the issues of Jerusalem and the lifting of the Gaza siege, and invited him to lead a public prayer in Gaza and expressed the hope that he would in future lead a prayer at Al-Aqsa mosque. Al-Qaradhawi thanked Haniya for the invitation and promised to try to make it a reality. He praised Gaza for its steadfastness, and wished it victory and liberation.
The Egyptians, for their part, indicated an intention to ease conditions for Gazans at the Rafah crossing. Egyptian Ambassador to the Palestinian Authority Yasser 'Othman said that his country was holding intense discussions aimed at "removing constraints on travelers at the Rafah crossing," and promised that Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Egypt would be released gradually.
A dramatic development came on May 28, 2011, when Egypt opened the Rafah crossing. Hamas Foreign Ministry official Ghazi Hammad said that Egypt had not yet informed his movement what role the Europeans will play at the crossing, and added that Hamas prefers the crossing to be under Egyptian and Palestinian supervision alone. He also said that the Egyptians have promised to reassess the list of persons banned from entering their borders, which was compiled by the previous regime, and to limit it to individuals who pose a genuine threat to Egypt's security.
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At present, the crossing is closed to goods traffic, and the movement of persons is limited to 300-400 a day; these restrictions have angered Hamas. Dissatisfaction was also expressed by Khalil Abu Shamala, spokesman of the human rights organization Al-Damir, who asked: "How is it that Jordan opens its borders, allowing thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank to pass through them every day, whereas Egypt allows the passage of only 300 people?"
In 2006, Hamas campaigned for election under the slogan of Islah Wal-Taghyir (Reform and Change); however, it has failed to keep this campaign promise. After utilizing democracy to come to power and winning a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council, it refused to accept that it lacked absolute control over the PA, which was and remains under the rule of its elected president, Mahmoud 'Abbas, and not under the rule of a president from Hamas. For this reason, Hamas staged the Gaza coup, expelling Fatah's representatives from the government there and striving to displace Fatah in Gaza, even resorting to murdering Fatah members, which it has been doing since 2007.
In explaining its ousting of Fatah members from positions of power in Gaza, Hamas said that it had to take this measure since these officials had refused to accept its victory in the parliamentary elections, and had even tried to generate chaos in Gaza in order to prove Hamas incapable of governing.
Hamas's dictatorial rule in Gaza is reflected in human rights violations: denying citizens exit from Gaza, closing down or taking over institutions, banning marches and memorial rallies, including those marking national occasions, placing restraints on the media and suppressing free speech, banning the circulation of papers and polls whose content is unfavorable to the movement, and harassing journalists.
Doing everything it can to stay in power, Hamas actively opposes anything it views as a threat to its rule. It has generally upheld the tahdiah with Israel and imposed it on the other Gazan factions, despite its past as the main standard-bearer of armed resistance and rocket launchings (though occasionally it breaches the tahdiah, claiming that Israel is still targeting its fighters). This does not mean that it has abandoned the path of armed resistance: it has continued to arm and fortify its strongholds, and to educate its youth to violence and resistance. Rather, Hamas generally chooses to uphold the tahdiah because breaching it would likely endanger its rule.
On the social-religious level, Hamas saw its rise to power as an opportunity to take steps toward Islamization, but it is doing so by degrees, all the while assessing the public's response. When it encounters opposition, it stops and regroups for the next stage. At the same time, it did not hesitate to slaughter members of the Salafi group Jund Ansar Allah when its leader announced the establishment of an Islamic emirate, thereby challenging Hamas's authority. This is part of Hamas's overall conflict with the Salafi groups and with religious elements that accuse it of neglecting the path of jihad and of failing to implement shari'a. Hamas has also taken a firm hand with the Islamic Jihad organization, imposing its authority and policy on it.
Hamas's policies have sparked resentment among the Gaza public. One reason is the tunnels, which are Hamas-sponsored, and which Hamas uses to bring in weapons, people, and funds. Hamas has defended its sponsorship of the tunnels by claiming that they are used to bring in goods, thus alleviating the hardships of the siege. However, the numerous deaths in the tunnels, including those of children, have evoked public rage, as did the emergence of a social sector that grew wealthy off the tunnels. In order to surmount the temporary difficulties of bringing funds into Gaza, Hamas increased taxes on Gaza residents and seized bank funds, steps which likewise infuriated the public.
Yet another reason for public anger is the rumors of corruption and luxury among Hamas leaders. Public resentment peaked when Hamas demolished illegally built homes in Gaza; residents accused it of acting like Israel, or even worse.
As for the security situation within Gaza, Hamas has encountered difficulty in maintaining law and order, and chaos prevails – as reflected, for example, in the torching of resorts and summer camps and the planting of bombs near shops and private residences. Hamas's own activists have been responsible for some of the incidents, while others were perpetrated by members of the Salafi-jihadi groups.
Conflicts have also surfaced among various elements within Hamas, becoming especially visible in 2010-2011. In particular, relations between political bureau head Khaled Mash'al and Gaza leader Mahmoud Al-Zahhar have become tense since the latter criticized the former's policy.
Hamas's policies and conduct have caused a drop in its popularity among the public, as reflected in opinion polls. Its leaders have explained that this is the price of governing.
In April-May 2011, after many years of efforts, Hamas and Fatah managed to sign a reconciliation agreement. Among the factors that facilitated this development were the initiative of 'Abbas and Fayyad to promote Palestinian unity, the public pressure to achieve reconciliation, and the efforts of the new Egyptian regime, as well as Hamas's fear that the upheavals in the Arab world might undermine its rule in Gaza and that the unrest in Syria might jeopardize its status there.
The details of the reconciliation agreement are not fully known, but the document of understandings speaks of establishing a national unity government; holding elections for the presidency, the Palestinian Legislative Council and the Palestinian National Council, and of establishing an interim leadership until the elections are held. Many controversial issues have been postponed for discussion in committees that are yet to be established, such as the Supreme Security Council, which is to discuss the reorganization of the Palestinian security apparatuses. Palestinian officials from both Fatah and Hamas expressed skepticism regarding the agreement's chances of success, saying that its implementation is likely to encounter many difficulties.
*C. Jacob is a research fellow at MEMRI
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