Quarterly Updates for (16 May 2017 — 15 Aug 2017)

Cairo was in a unique position this quarter at the nexus of otherwise marginally related trends. On the one hand, Pres. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was working with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain to boycott Qatar over its alleged support for so-called terrorist groups, including Hamas (see “Regional Affairs” below). On the other hand, al-Sisi saw an opportunity to advance his regional agenda in a new round of negotiations with the group.

With Hamas under increasing pressure from PA pres. Abbas (see “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” above), the group’s new secondin-command, Yahya Sinwar, took over the Egypt portfolio this quarter, leading a delegation to Cairo on 6/4. According to a Hamas spokesperson, the 2 sides would discuss Egypt’s role in improving humanitarian conditions in Gaza, specifically the need to open the Rafah border crossing more often. Cairo had kept the crossing largely closed since Islamist fighters in n. Sinai, many of whom later took on the mantle of Sinai Province of the Islamic State (SPIS), launched a major attack on Egyptian forces in 10/2014. Hamas’s relations with Cairo were already strained before then with the Egyptian army’s overthrow of then pres. Mohamed Morsi in 2013 causing the initial rupture (see JPS 43 [1])—but the Islamists’ attack and the ensuing counterinsurgency created a raft of new travel restrictions in Sinai and fostered Israeli-bred suspicions of Hamas involvement. After 9 days of talks, the delegation returned to Gaza on 6/12. “All the shared issues have been studied in a serious and deep way with our Egyptian brothers,” a Hamas source said (6/12).

Although neither side officially announced a breakthrough or disclosed specific details about the talks, rumors and unconfirmed reports proliferated in the Arab media. On 6/12 Asharq Al-Awsat reported that the Egyptian authorities offered to increase the supply of electricity to Gaza and to open the Rafah crossing more frequently in exchange for Hamas releasing 17 men wanted by the Egyptian govt., increasing security along the Gaza-Egypt border, stopping alleged weapons smuggling into Sinai, and supplying information on the movement of armed fighters between Sinai and Gaza.

Hamas’s conduct in the wake of the delegation’s visit to Cairo indicated that the movement was on board with the rumored deal. On 6/13, the Hamas-run Ministry of Interior and Internal Security recommended a series of procedures to “enhance the state of security at the s. border with Egypt.” Two weeks later, Hamas announced (6/28) that it was implementing the recommendations, including the establishment of a 100 m “buffer zone” and the installation of new watchtowers and cameras along the border. Dep. Minister of Interior and Internal Security Tawfiq Abu Naim said (6/28) the new measures had been taken in order to secure “control of the s. border and to completely prevent infiltration and smuggling” and that they were meant as a “reassuring message” to Egypt. “The national security of Egypt is the national security of Gaza,” he added. Around the same time there were other signs of growing cooperation between Egypt and Hamas, including Egyptian shipments of fuel to the Gaza power plant and the reemergence of exiled Fatah leader Dahlan in Cairo (see “Gaza’s Electricity Crisis” and “Intra-Palestinian Dynamics” above).

After another delegation visited Cairo (7/2) to build on the 6/4–12 talks, a Hamas spokesperson confirmed (7/2) that relations had reached a “positive turning point,” and that Hamas was implementing several procedures agreed to in 6/2017. Then, in his first major speech as the movement’s new head, Ismail Haniyeh thanked (7/5) Egypt for its efforts to improve conditions in Gaza and announced that Cairo had agreed to more frequent openings of the Rafah crossing. “We have turned a new page in our relationship [with Egypt],” he added.

The budding Egypt-Hamas rapprochement was subsequently jeopardized, however. On 7/7, a suicide bomber detonated a car at an Egyptian checkpoint in Rafah, killing 10 Egyptian soldiers and injuring 16 others. In their search for accomplices, the Egyptian army killed 40 armed fighters, including many affiliated with SPIS, and destroyed 6 vehicles in the area.

In addition to interrupting fuel deliveries to Gaza, the attack also gave Hamas’s enemies an opening. The IDF’s COGAT Mordechai claimed (7/8) that 4 former mbrs. of Hamas had participated in the clashes against the Egyptian army in Sinai on 7/7. “Hamas and Islamic State are 2 sides of the same coin,” he said, referring to the largest Islamist group active in Sinai, SPIS. Mordechai also argued that their participation demonstrated that Hamas was not helping Egypt as much as it was “enabling the free passage of terrorist elements between Gaza and Sinai.” Hamas’s main rival, the Fatah-dominated PA, also sought to stymie the growing Hamas-Egyptian rapprochement. Abbas met al-Sisi on 7/9 to discuss the U.S.-led initiative (see “The Trump Initiative” above), regional developments, and Hamas. Details of their meeting were not disclosed, but a PA source said (7/9) the meeting was “successful” and that al-Sisi supported the “legitimate Palestinian leadership.” After the meeting, senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad contradicted some of the earlier Hamas reports on the agreement with Egypt. “The Rafah border crossing will not be opened in a regular manner without the official and legitimate border authority subordinate to [Abbas],” he said.

There were further reports of HamasEgyptian talks through the end of the quarter, but no further announcements. Although they had clearly made progress toward a broader understanding, the Egyptian authorities kept the Rafah crossing closed for all but 2 days this quarter, allowing a limited number of Muslim pilgrims to exit Gaza (8/14–15) on their way to Mecca.