Why Egypt Works to Curb Hamas’ Influence in Gaza
Egypt’s relations with Hamas have always been turbulent. Hamas was formed in 1987 as a Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; Egypt considers the Brotherhood a terrorist group. But Egypt shares a border with Gaza, which Hamas governs, and Egypt has often served as an intermediary between Israel and Hamas when fighting breaks out.
Egypt moved aggressively against hundreds of Hamas smuggling tunnels after the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government of Mohamed Morsi was ousted in 2013. It closed its Rafah border crossing into Gaza, except for humanitarian supplies, citing security threats. Israel has also closed its Gaza border in an attempt to stem the flow of weapons and terrorist supplies from reaching Hamas.
Egypt also revoked the Egyptian citizenship of some Hamas leaders, including co-founder Mahmoud Al Zahar.
Furthermore, Egypt is wary of Hamas’ close ties to Iran, which pours money and weapons into Gaza. Iran expects Hamas to use that support to attack Israel, while Egypt is hoping to keep the area quiet. Last month, Egypt reportedly made Hamas choose between Iran or Palestinian reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which it is seeking in hopes of reopening borders.
Hamas, meanwhile, has allowed jihadists to reach the Sinai, worrying Egyptian authorities. Many Gaza-trained terrorists used border tunnels to sneak into Egypt and execute attacks. Some of those terrorists belonged to the North Sinai ISIS affiliate Ansar Bait Al Maqdes. These elements occasionally have attempted to break the Egyptian-Israeli peace by bombing oil pipelines to Israel from Egypt, as well as attacking Israeli communities from the Sinai.
In 2016, Egypt accused Hamas of involvement in the assassination of Egyptian Public Prosecutor Hisham Barakat, in coordination with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Turkey.
With Gaza’s borders sealed, the tunnels in and out of Egypt became a key supply source for Hamas. Hamas even had a “tunnel authority” in its government, signifying the tunnels’ extreme importance. That authority was closed in 2014, after Egypt started destroying tunnels.
At that point, some tunnels were large enough to allow vehicles to pass through them. After destroying more than 3,000 smuggling tunnels, in 2015 the Egyptian army engineering corps dug a canal stretching 14 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea to the end of the land borders between Egypt and Gaza. Large tubes pumped in seawater, creating a canal that helped flood another 1,000 tunnels.
The security situation remains fragile in the North Sinai, as a large number of citizens have been killed in terrorist attacks, including many Copts, forcing people to seek refuge in safer areas such as Suez and Ismailia.
As a result, the Egyptian army decided to demolish the old border city of Rafah to create a security buffer zone with Gaza, and relocate its residents to a new Rafah city two kilometers away. This decision dealt Hamas a major blow, since many smuggling tunnels were located inside Rafah.
Egypt continued to cut all the illegal lifelines that generated the huge finances that have kept Hamas in power in Gaza since 2007. A Hamas economic ministry spokesman in 2013 claimed that Gaza lost over $230 million per month from fees and taxes after the tunnels were taken out of commission.
Hamas still garners millions of dollars monthly by operating the border when it is opened for humanitarian aid shipments. In 2016, a Hamas employee leaked a document detailing that revenue.
That’s why Hamas wants to continue controlling the Rafah border crossing, while Egypt wants the PA in charge. The PA was designated as the controlling power in a 2017 Hamas-Fatah reconciliation negotiated in Cairo. Breaking all agreements mediated by Egypt, Hamas last month hassled and arrested more than 500 Palestinian Authority representatives in Gaza.
Egypt still controls the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process, and rejects the involvement of other regional countries, including Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. Those countries have long supported terrorist activities inside Egypt, and politically endorsed Muslim Brotherhood terrorism. Hence, Egyptians won’t allow them to be part of any political arrangement, especially as Egypt plans to host another round of negotiations between Hamas and the PA in Cairo in the upcoming weeks. The negotiations seek a full Palestinian reconciliation, a resolution of the border status, and a possible coalition government, although success is considered highly unlikely in the near future.
Egypt sees the Palestinian Authority as its chief Palestinian ally, because it is internationally recognized and recognizes Israel. More importantly, the PA is the nemesis of Hamas, which has always been hostile toward Egypt and remains allied with Iran.
Accordingly, Egypt will continue to work on clipping the wings of Hamas.
Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy, and a regular contributor to the BBC.
This article was originally commissioned by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.