Analysis

Egypt May Lift the Gaza Blockade, but Hamas Will Still Pay a Price

Opening of the Rafah crossing could give Hamas some breathing room. It will also serve Egypt's diplomatic interests

Palestinians wait for travel permits to cross into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing, August 16, 2017.
SAID KHATIB/AFP

Are the Egyptians planning to bring down the blockade regime that Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip 10 years ago?

If the reports of the plan for the continuous opening of the Rafah Crossing on the Egyptian side to both goods and people are confirmed, there won’t be much of a point to Israel’s continuation of the blockade. Residents of Gaza could travel, albeit via a lengthy route through Egypt, to anywhere in the world. Students could pursue their studies, patients could get medical care, if not in Israel then in Egypt, Jordan or Europe. Goods could enter and exit legally and Israel would be left without its crucial Arab partner in maintaining the brutal siege that had made Gaza uninhabitable.

But since we have yet to hear an official Egyptian announcement to this effect, nor an ordered Israeli response to the reported opening of the crossing at the beginning of next month, it pays to wait a bit before getting too excited. The opening of the crossing, if it occurs, is not a unilateral Egyptian initiative detached from the past few years of coordination and security cooperation between Israel and Egypt. Even though it could strengthen Hamas’ position in the Strip and give it an important economic boost, it is aimed a serving Egypt’s diplomatic interests without undermining Israel’s security interests.

Egypt has set some basic conditions for opening the crossing, the first and most important of which is that the Palestinian Authority must control it. But in contrast to the crossings agreement signed in 2005 (to which Egypt was not a party), Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi isn’t insisting on a third (European) party at the crossings and will make do with the PA supplying only part of the manpower at Rafah. What’s more important to Sissi is that the person responsible to Egypt (and Israel) for the crossings will not be a Hamas man, so that the case can be made that a Fatah leader, Mohammed Dahlan, garnered this gift for the Gazan people, rather than the regime ruling the Strip.

Dahlan is not just a decoration that provides an excuse for opening the crossing, but an inseparable part of Sissi’s policy: He views Dahlan as a trusted agent through whom Egypt can restore its status as the party responsible for what goes on in Gaza in particular and in the Palestinian territories in general. Sissi sees Dahlan as destined to succeed PA President Mahmoud Abbas when the time is right, and he doesn’t hide it.

But for Dahlan to assume his place in Gaza, he had to get Hamas to agree – which it did after some lengthy political soul-searching by the organization’s leadership. The personnel changes at Hamas’ helm – the retirement of Khaled Meshal, the appointment of Ismail Haniyeh as Hamas’ political chief and of Yahya Sinwar as the Hamas leader in Gaza – along with the publication of the new Hamas charter, yielded results that Egypt could accept. What most interested Egypt was the disengagement of Hamas from the Muslim Brotherhood, against which Egypt is waging a war to the death. The new charter doesn’t mention the Muslim Brotherhood at all or any connection between Hamas and the movement from which it sprung.

Agreements with Hamas

But Egypt wanted more than just declarations, and Hamas figures say the organization agreed to increase its military patrols along the Egyptian border to prevent any more infiltrations of terror operatives into or out of the Strip. At the same time, senior Hamas officials came to understandings with Dahlan at meetings sponsored, and sometimes attended by, Egyptian intelligence officials responsible for managing the relationship with Gaza.

According to a draft agreement leaked to the media three weeks ago, Dahlan will head a kind of Gaza civil administration, and be responsible for managing the crossings on both the Israeli and Egyptian sides, for negotiating related issues with both Egypt and Israel and for collecting funds to rehabilitate the Strip. According to Egyptian media reports, the United Arab Emirates has already allocated more than $140 million toward building a new power plant in Gaza and has committed to giving Gaza $15 million a month to fund routine maintenance and help needy families. These funds will be managed by Dahlan’s people who live in the UAE and have the regime’s backing.

Hamas, whose funding has dwindled since it cut itself off from Syria and Iran, is left without diplomatic or financial options. The Egyptian demands that came with the promise to open the crossing were the last vital source of oxygen left. But such a vital source doesn’t come free. Egypt and Israel need a responsible authority in the Gaza Strip, given the abject failure of the PA’s and Abbas’ efforts to control it. But while Egypt’s main interest is to close Gaza off to the terror organizations operating in Sinai and within Egypt, Israel is served by the establishment of a recognized administration in Gaza as a tool that could hinder any diplomatic agreement. Because as long as there are two Palestinian leaderships, one in the West Bank and one in Gaza, Israel can claim that there is no leadership representing the Palestinian people, thus proving that there is no partner.

The establishment of a recognized Palestinian administration in Gaza, even one that relies heavily on Hamas, provides another important bonus to Egypt, since this will neutralize Qatar’s influence in the Strip, while Turkey won’t be able to enjoy a free hand in the region despite its massive support of Hamas. Israel also gets something: If the agreement between Dahlan and Hamas is realized, it could also block Iran’s ambitions in Gaza.

There remains just one small issue that will grow quickly – the question of the leadership succession in the territories. Will Dahlan, who was ousted from Fatah by Abbas in 2011, be able to turn Gaza into a political lever that will make him Abbas’ successor, or will Fatah officials put up their own leader? How will Hamas integrate into the new leadership?

But to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, first we’ll take Gaza, then we’ll take Ramallah.