Just two days after the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, the new interim government in Egypt closed the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip indefinitely, and Nilesat – an Egyptian company that controls a number of Egyptian communications satellites – removed Hamas TV, Al-Quds, from the air.
Hamas, the de facto government in the Gaza Strip, is an off-shoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the politico-religious organisation to which Morsi belonged. When Morsi was first returned to power a year ago, the leaders of Hamas clearly believed that they had gained an invaluable ally in their self-imposed “armed struggle” against Israel. For example, it is not generally known that in July 2012, just after Morsi came to power, Hamas was seriously considering a unilateral declaration of independence for the Gaza Strip, hoping for support from the MB Egyptian government. Arab newspapers like Al-Arabiya and Al-Hayat reported that the possibility of establishing a self-supporting Islamist Palestinian state of Gaza was seriously discussed between Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Egypt’s then-President Mohammed Morsi.
On this occasion Hamas was to be disappointed in its bid for fraternal support. Becoming complicit with Hamas was not in Egypt’s best interests – not even for a MB president. Egypt was relying on a new $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and a $6.4 billion support package from the EU, to say nothing of a hefty package of loans and grants from the USA. So the half-baked secession plan came to nothing.
All the same MB’s accession to power in Egypt much emboldened Hamas, not only within the Gaza Strip, but in Sinai as well, an important territorial buffer between Egypt and Israel since their 1979 peace treaty.
During the summer of 2012 a number of armed attacks were launched from Sinai on Israel, and in each case support from Hamas in Gaza was suspected. In one incident two gunmen, later killed in an exchange of fire, infiltrated Israel and killed an Israeli civilian working on the construction of a border fence. Media reports indicated that the gunmen had received helped from within Gaza. When Israel responded with two air strikes into Gaza and four other militants were killed, Hamas launched medium-range rockets, mortar shells and long-range Grad-model Katyushas rockets at southern Israel.
One result of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution was to encourage armed Palestinian groups and global jihadists to penetrate the large, sparsely populated desert peninsula of Sinai, usually from the Gaza strip and supported by Hamas, and to mix with Bedouins disgruntled with the central Egyptian regime. What followed were attacks on the pipeline transporting natural gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan, the kidnapping of foreign tourists, and assaults against police stations. The Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), tasked with monitoring the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, also came under attack.
One major incident, occurring early in August, reflected the growing boldness of Hamas and the Islamist extremists whom Hamas supported. After killing about 15 Egyptian security personnel at a base in the border town of Rafah, the jihadists used a pickup truck filled with explosives to breach the Egypt-Israel border, then drove an armoured vehicle more than a mile into Israel before being struck by a missile fired from an Israeli military plane. Up to eight heavily armed militants were killed. A statement from the Egyptian military said 35 militants were involved and “elements from the Gaza Strip” aided the attack by firing rockets, suggesting co-ordination between Hamas and Sinai militants.
This access of bravado led Hamas to institute an unrestrained expansion of indiscriminate rocket attacks on southern Israel, until the situation became intolerable and Israel mounted its short, sharp retaliatory response – Operation Pillar of Defense. If the Hamas leadership believed that by provoking armed conflict with Israel, the MB government of Egypt would spring to their aid and involve the Middle East in another major conflict aimed at eliminating Israel, they were sadly disappointed. They did however, reap a quite unforeseen advantage from their common MB heritage with the new Egyptian government.
For it was Morsi, in conjunction with the US, who engineered the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in November 2012, opening the way for Hamas’s shaky, yet triumphalist, claim of victory. For a brief time, thanks to Egypt’s brokerage, Hamas bestrode the world stage, the standard bearers of the anti-Israel “armed struggle”.
With the overthrow of Morsi and the MB government in Egypt, Hamas is again experiencing the disapproval of its ill-considered militant activities that marked the previous Mubarak regime. The Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah is closed, the tunnels used for smuggling goods and weaponry out of Egypt are being blocked, and the Hamas leadership is once more out in the cold, facing opposition within Gaza from Salafists who are even more extremist than it is itself.
Hamas must be pinning its hopes on the activities of MB supporters within Egypt. On July 7 Egyptian Salafi jihad issued what it described as a “clarion call for Islamic revolution”. “Anyone who knows an advocate or a sheikh or a revolutionary,” said the statement, “should call him to urge him to mobilise.”
Since the generals ousted Morsi there has already been an upsurge in militant violence, particularly in Sinai, long a hotbed of Hamas-supported jihadist activity. Intelligence reports have warned of a build-up of weapons, some stolen from Gaddafi arms stores in Libya, some headed for Gaza but held up by the block on smugglers’ tunnels.
On the night of July 5, a group of Islamists seized the North Sinai governor’s palace in the Mediterranean town of El Arish, raising the black Islamist flag. Earlier, jihadists attacked military checkpoints, a police station and El Arish airport. Five police and a soldier were killed. On July 6, gunmen killed a Coptic Christian priest in El Arish, a sign of the sectarian tensions bubbling under the surface. Brotherhood leaders and clerics had attacked Christians for joining anti-Morsi protests, and the decision by Pope Tawadros, leader of the Coptic church, to back Morsi’s removal inflamed feelings further, even though he was joined by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University.
In short, the one-time dream by the Hamas leadership of a Egypt-Gaza Muslim Brotherhood axis has faded. Armed struggle – and this time not at all confined to Israel – is once again the order of the day.