The decision by an Egyptian court last Tuesday to ban all Hamas activities in Egypt has raised few eyebrows as relations between the military backed government in Cairo and the Islamist resistance movement in Gaza Strip had gone from bad to worse since last year’s ouster of President Mohammad Mursi.
The ruling comes amid allegations that Hamas was involved in a number of crimes including the prison breaks on January 28,2011, smuggling weapons through illegal tunnels and involvement in terrorist attacks against Egyptian security forces in Sinai. The Egyptian authorities have declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. Hamas is considered an off-shoot of that group with close ties to Brotherhood’s leadership including the deposed president. During Mursi’s short presidency, Hamas leaders were received in Egypt as state guests. And when violence broke out between Hamas and Israel in November 2012, it was Mursi who negotiated a truce.
The court’s ruling is symbolic. Hamas claims it has no activities or offices in Egypt. Its leaders have often stressed that no foreign fighters had infiltrated from Gaza to Sinai. But the ruling underlines Hamas’ reversal of fortune in the past few months. With the Rafah border point closed most of the time and with more than 1200 tunnels destroyed by the Egyptian military, Gazans are feeling trapped again. Hamas officials are not welcome in Egypt and with tighter border control the Islamist movement has been denied access to funds dispatched by its outside supporters.
The Syrian crisis has not been kind to Hamas as well. Since its political bureau decided to leave Damascus, after objecting to the regime’s brutal response to the uprising there, relations with both Iran and Hezbollah had turned bitter. Mursi’s election in Egypt presented a handsome compensation, but not for long.
Now the head of its political bureau, Khalid Meshaal, can hardly leave his temporary base in Qatar. The new leadership in Egypt has restored normal relations with Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas. But anti-Hamas mood in Egypt has undercut Cairo’s traditional role as a mediator between Palestinian factions. In spite of tense relations between the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak and Hamas, the former never severed relations with the rulers of the Gaza Strip.
Since Hamas took over in Gaza in 2007, Egypt has tried to defuse tension and back efforts to reach Palestinian reconciliation. Even before Mursi’s election the interim military council played a major role in securing a tentative agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Now that role is no more.
Feeling growing isolation, Hamas has recently tried to revive reconciliation efforts with Ramallah. A Fatah delegation was allowed to visit the beleaguered Gaza Strip last month. But internal divisions within Hamas, especially between the leaders in Gaza and the political bureau abroad, have delayed the execution of an agreement.
On the other hand, Fatah leadership is also divided over making peace with Hamas. Some believe that economic sanctions and political isolation will eventually weaken Hamas’ grip on Gaza. Israel and the US have put pressure on Abbas not to mend fences with the Islamist movement in Gaza.
Hamas has attacked recent peace efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry and warned that his plan only aims at liquidating the Palestinian cause. But observers believe that Hamas may seek to end its political isolation by opening secret contact channels with both Israel and the US, through its Qatari hosts. Shlomo Elder, writing in Al Monitor last month, claimed that Israel has facilitated the passage of Qatari funds and architects through Erez crossing point. Qatar is involved in large reconstruction projects in Gaza. And since relations between Doha and Cairo have turned bad, after the overthrow of Mursi, Qatar has been using Israel as gateway to Gaza.
But Hamas has a narrow margin of political manoeuvre. It has reached agreements with Israel before — over Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit — but its political positions on Israeli occupation and the peace process have changed little. With the possibility of Kerry’s efforts succeeding in reaching an agreement between the PA and Israel, Hamas might be forced to consolidate its hold in Gaza, thus effectively dividing the future Palestinian state.
The other option for besieged Hamas would be to restore its relations with Iran. Ironically, a day after Egypt’s court ruling, Israel announced that it had intercepted a ship in the Red Sea with a cargo of missiles en route from Iran to Gaza through Sinai. While such claims are difficult to corroborate, they point to two things. One that Israel is using the Egyptian court ruling to further demonise Hamas by tying it to Iran. And second, and especially if Israel’s claims are true, that Hamas and Iran have already repaired their broken ties.
In all cases, isolating Hamas and cutting off relations between Egypt and Gaza Strip will hurt Cairo’s regional influence as well as exacerbate Gazan’s daily suffering. It does not help efforts to reach Palestinian reconciliation aimed at forming a united front ahead of political pressures to accept a US mediated peace plan. It presents an existential challenge to Hamas, which will be forced to rebuild its regional alliances, especially with Iran. But it could also drive the movement to open contacts with Israel, through Qatar, thus changing the entire game plan!
Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman.