x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Egypt's iron wall sends out tough message over border

Analysis Unless Hamas bows to its more powerful neighbour and signs Cairo's unity document unabridged, Egypt could stealthily apply more pressure on Gaza.

RAMALLAH // As Egypt presses on with the construction of an iron wall along its border with Gaza, there are signs that it is beginning to have an effect on the other side. Hamas leaders continue to call on Egypt to halt construction of the wall that Cairo says is intended to stem smuggling under the border, but which is clearly also meant as a message to Hamas that Egypt expects more co-operation from the Palestinian Islamist movement.

The Hamas response has come in two forms. Diplomatically, the movement has been keen to reach out and mend bridges. Indeed, on Friday, the two most senior Hamas officials, Khaled Meshaal, the political chief, and Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister, both underlined the Islamist movement's view of relations with Egypt as "strategic" and spoke positively of Cairo's efforts to foster unity between Hamas and Fatah, its West Bank political rival.

Conversely, the last week also saw the worst escalation in and around Gaza since Israeli troops finally withdrew in the wake of their devastating offensive there a year ago. Seven Palestinians, including three civilians, were killed in Israeli air strikes that came after a spike in the number of rockets fired from Gaza. While Hamas's military wing is not understood to have been involved in those launches, there seemed to be a relaxing of efforts to impose similar restraint on other groups.

With both approaches, Hamas is playing to Cairo's desire for stability above all else in Gaza. Egypt does not want the humanitarian situation in Gaza to worsen or a repeat of last year's war. Egypt also does not want the status quo to continue nor does it want to risk, by opening the Rafah crossing fully, that Israel succeeds in passing off its responsibility for Gaza to Cairo. "Hamas' reluctance provoked Egypt to change course," Gamal Soltan, director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, wrote recently in the online newsletter bitterlemons-international. "Cairo realised it had to send Hamas a strong message."

Tightening its control over the border is a way for Egypt to push Hamas into a corner and force it to face the "hard realities of power and geography", Mr Soltan argued. Thus, unless Hamas bows to its more powerful neighbour and signs Cairo's unity document unabridged, Egypt could continue to tighten the screws on Gaza. It will do so slowly so as not to invoke too high a political cost in Egypt and across the Arab world, where construction of the wall has met with widespread criticism.

But it is a high-risk game. Mr Soltan calls it Egypt's 'Plan B' and suggested Cairo be ready for 'Plan C' should Hamas choose "new adventures" instead. The last thing Egypt wants is a repeat of the scenes in January 2008 when hundreds of thousands of Gazans streamed across the border to stock up on much needed supplies after Hamas members bulldozed their way through the concrete wall that had previously separated Gaza from Egypt.

Should Cairo succeed in shutting down the tunnel industry completely, desperate measures may be called for again. But while Cairo wants to send Hamas a message, it is not clear it really can shut down the smuggling. It is a million-dollar industry that not only brings in much-needed revenue to the impoverished Sinai, but ensures living conditions in Gaza are minimally tolerable,factors both high on Cairo's list of priorities.

So while Egypt has not yet responded to Hamas's recent overtures, Cairo might be well advised to do so sooner rather than later. okarmi@thenational.ae