x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 September 2017

Hamas engagement with Egypt fails reconcile Palestinian rivals

Hamas leader's visit to Cairo brings pledges to work for unity government, but observers remain doubtful

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh flashes a victory sign after visiting protesters taking part in a sit-in on May 8, 2017 in Gaza City in support of Palestinian hunger-striking prisoners in Israeli jails. Mahmud Hams / AFP
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh flashes a victory sign after visiting protesters taking part in a sit-in on May 8, 2017 in Gaza City in support of Palestinian hunger-striking prisoners in Israeli jails. Mahmud Hams / AFP

The renewal of ties between Hamas and Egypt could bring mutual security and political benefits but may not be enough to reunite the Gaza-based group with its rival in the West Bank, according to people close to Palestinian politics. 

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh visited Cairo on Saturday in the clearest sign yet of a reversal in the deterioration of relations that followed the removal of president Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian military in July 2013. The new Egyptian leadership and media at the time had regarded Hamas as a terrorist group that derived its tactics and ideology from the Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo outlawed in November 2013.

Mr Haniyeh's agenda included lifting the blockade on Gaza from the Egyptian side, controlling militant attacks in the Sinai and smuggling of weapons into the peninsula, and the prospects Hamas of forming a national unity government with the Palestinian Authority. He held talks with Egypt's intelligence chief Khaled Fawzi and other military officials.

“We never stopped engaging with Egypt. We have had a rough period of trading barbs but the main reason for our visit now is to strengthen our strategic ties" said Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas deputy foreign minister.

"Egypt has shown that it is supportive in opening up the national dialogue between Hamas and Fatah," he said.

Egypt has kept its Rafah crossing with the densely populated Gaza Strip mostly shut since Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade on the territory in 2007. The blockade has crippled Gaza's economy and essential services and created what human rights groups have described as the world's largest open-air prison.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has compounded the suffering of Gaza's 2 million residents in recent months by cutting the supply of electricity from Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group and does not deal with it directly.

On Monday, Hamas released a statement saying that it was ready to negotiate with its rival Fatah, which is led by Mr Abbas, while the group's officials have said it would be willing to dissolve the Gaza administrative committee set up earlier this year in a direct challenge to the president's authority.

However, the prospects of agreement on a unity government are bleak, according to Mr Hamad.

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“We are agreed on the main points with Fatah such as parliamentary elections to form a government but the main problem is the loss of trust between both sides. Sadly, Fatah’s position until now does not show any seriousness in accepting our offer,” Mr Hamad told The National.

“Their position is contradictory and does not hold water. They cannot have it both ways," he said.

Lamis Andoni, an Amman-based political analyst who has attended talks between various Palestinian factions, also sees any talk of reconciliation as mere rhetoric.

“Many plans were put forward in the past but they have fallen through. Abbas is afraid of Hamas and Hamas would like to consolidate its role in Gaza," Ms Andoni told The National.

She said Mohammed Dahlan, the former Gaza security chief for Fatah who lives in exile in the UAE and who brokered the thaw in relations between Hamas and Cairo, would be a key player.

“Remember, Dahlan is Gazan and has a power base in Gaza. He has a special role to play in this relationship because of his access to Sisi and the intelligence agencies and also has a channel to the Emirati leadership, which for a group as pragmatic as Hamas is important," Ms Andoni said.

Fadi El Salameen, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Foreign Policy Institute who has worked closely with Mr Dahlan, was doubtful that Hamas's renewed ties with Cairo would greatly change the Palestinian political landscape.

“I think publicly they [Hamas] are saying they’re ready to join a unity government but I believe that no side will be joining a unity government unless Abbas promises to pay the bills. Hamas can form a government with others, even with people like Dahlan, because they are tired of trying the same thing with Abbas,” he said.

“Abbas has so many enemies, fights and arguments with factions. Hamas are done with him and I wouldn’t be surprised if they go for Dahlan because he is able to bring them, with the support of the Emirates, what Abbas can’t,” he added.

While Hamas’s co-operation with Egypt may not yield immediate political gains, it has already drawn a response from the militants Cairo is battling.

Sinai Province, an ISIL affiliate that has killed hundreds of Egyptian security personnel and citizens in recent years, on Wednesday threatened to attack Hamas for collaborating with the Egyptian army.

“We are against Daesh and it wants to take any steps to ruin Hamas’s reputation. We are not afraid. and Gaza’s security is relatively safe against any terror attacks,” Mr Hamad said.