Analysis

As Qatar Crisis Rages, Egypt Gets Closer to Hamas

As the diplomatic crisis surrounding Qatar continues, Cairo, Hamas and Palestinian President Abbas' rival Mohammed Dahlan have reportedly agreed on a new way to run Gaza – which could loosen the blockade at Israel’s expense

Gazans supporting Qatar near a mosque funded by Doha, Khan Yunis, Gaza, June 12, 2017.
As Qatar crisis rages, Egypt gets closer to Hamas Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency

Samir Ghattas, head of Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies in Egypt, has no doubts whatsoever. “The understandings between the Hamas delegation on one side and the Egyptian intelligence chief and Mohammed Dahlan on the other are a balloon with no truth in it,” he said in a media interview this week.

Ghattas, who is also an Egyptian parliament member, was referring to reports that Hamas officials who met the Egyptian intelligence chief had reached agreements including the appointment of Fatah’s Dahlan to run a committee in charge of Gaza affairs. These agreements were intended to reduce tensions between Egypt and Hamas, lead to the opening the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, increase Egypt’s electricity supply to the enclave and ultimately cut Gaza off from the West Bank.

No Egyptian official confirmed these agreements. Hamas answered vaguely, saying its officials including Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar and security forces chief Tawfiq Abu Naim had met with the heads of Egyptian intelligence. They said they expected a significant improvement in relations between Hamas and Egypt, and in Gazans’ well-being.

Not a word about any agreements or understandings. On the other hand, Ghattas’ skepticism can also be questioned. He’s “suspect” because he’s also Palestinian. In the past he was an adviser to Fatah’s Khalil al-Wazir, a strong opponent of Hamas, and according to reports in Egypt, he has several foreign passports in addition to his Egyptian one.

The one person nobody had any doubts about is Dahlan, a bitter rival of Mahmoud Abbas, whom Dahlan has been trying for years to oust with the justified legal argument that Abbas’ presidency, which has long expired, isn’t legitimate.

Faiz Abu Shamala, a Gazan journalist and investigator, was the first to report in detail on the recent agreements. He reported that under the agreements a committee will be set up to run Gaza affairs with a $50 million budget. The committee will be headed by Dahlan, who will be in charge of foreign policy, fundraising and running the crossings between Gaza and Egypt, while the security and interior portfolios will remain with Hamas. Dahlan will also be in charge of talks with Israel about the crossings and “other matters.”

The committee will be financed by taxes the Palestinian Authority now collects from Gaza. The money will be used to pay civil servants, and this will complete the PA’s break with Gaza. Egypt will be able to open the Rafah crossing, as it will be managed on the Palestinian side by Fatah people who support Dahlan.

Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, left, and Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza, May 2017.
Adel Hana / AP

The Qatar card

Palestinian commentators say these agreements will serve not only Hamas, which is under Egyptian, Arab and international pressure as a terror organization, but also Israel. They say Dahlan, who still supports the peace process, will help Israel run Gaza. Even Abbas will finally be able to get rid of the Gaza yoke.

This week, with the return of the delegation from Egypt, it was reported that Hamas beefed up its forces along the Gaza-Egypt border to demonstrate its cooperation with Egypt’s demands. These demands consist mainly of containing the Sinai terror and preventing terrorists from passing between Sinai and Gaza.

But whether these agreements are real or a trial balloon, the very visit to Egypt and the long meetings with senior Egyptian officials reflect the dilemmas facing Egypt and Hamas. The talks were held as the electricity crisis peaked. They also follow the sanctions and closure imposed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Libya on Qatar, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s calling Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood terror groups, as he said in Riyadh last month.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia also want to cut Hamas and Gaza off from Qatar’s sponsorship. But such a break could lead to an undesirable effect – the pushing of Hamas back into Iran’s embrace.

Iran, which excels at reading the regional map, hastened last month to congratulate Ismail Haniyeh and Sinwar for their promotions in Hamas. Quds force chief Qasem Soleimani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and parliament Speaker Ali Larijani were among the well-wishers. But their letters were published by Hamas only after Trump’s visit, a hint that Hamas still has another option if it’s cut off from the Arab fold.

Egypt hastened to warn Hamas not to return to Iran’s embrace, but set up the meetings with the Gaza delegation and Dahlan, who lives in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Mohammed Dahlan, 2011.
Majdi Mohammed/AP

Qatar isn’t Egypt’s only concern. Abbas is also throwing monkey wrenches in the Egyptian works. While Arab states are joining the boycott of Qatar or at least supporting it, Abbas hasn’t made a clear statement on the issue.

At the beginning of the week his confidants said he would be willing to mediate between Qatar and the Gulf states and even offered his services to Jordan and spoke to Egypt’s president about it. But the next day the Palestinian intelligence chief, Majid Faraj, said firmly that “we’re with the Arab states and against Iran’s schemes in the region,” without mentioning Qatar.

Abbas’ rivals said he was silent because his sons have many business ties in Qatar and he himself has a Qatari passport and close personal ties with the ruling emir’s family.

Israel not the top priority

Abbas also has an open account with Egypt, which grows the more he suspects that Egypt is trying to advance Dahlan at his expense. Egypt sees Dahlan as Abbas’ successor and made its support for him clear when it refused to allow Dahlan’s arch rival Jibril Rajoub enter for a conference in Sharm el-Sheikh on social policy and terror. So if the reports on agreements between Hamas and Dahlan are even partly true, Abbas could find himself not only against Dahlan in Gaza but against Egypt as well.

Disagreements between Hamas and Fatah and between Abbas and his political rivals in Fatah have so far served Israel, which bristles every time there’s a possibility of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

Even now, when the crisis in the Gulf is lapping at Gaza’s shore and making waves in the Palestinian world, Israel believes it can be pleased. But Israel’s cooperation with Egypt in fighting terror can’t replace Egypt’s interest in punishing Qatar, putting Abbas in his place and asserting itself as landlord of the Palestinian issue. Egypt is no less responsible than Israel for the closure on Gaza and contributes its share to the electricity crisis by not increasing the power supply to the Strip.

But while Israel’s willingness to solve the electricity crisis isn’t due to humanitarianism but fear of a violent outburst in Gaza, Egypt has other considerations. Egypt seeks to neutralize Qatar and Turkey’s involvement in Gaza while distancing Hamas from Iran. This will force it to give something in return, even if it’s at Israel’s expense, like opening the Rafah crossing, which would thwart the effectiveness of the Israeli closure on Gaza.

Israel, which has dreamed of being accepted by the alliance of Sunni states, now realizes that even a distant crisis between Sunni states and their Sunni sister Qatar isn’t an exclusively Arab affair. The crisis can shatter some of Israel’s strategic calculations because Gaza, at one side of the happenings, has become a pawn among the Arab states.