Analysis

With Hopes of Battling ISIS in Sinai, Egypt Gives Hamas Another Chance

The agreements between Hamas and Egypt also give Egyptian President al-Sissi the ability to influence the rules of the game between Hamas and Israel.

Hamas security forces deploy on the Palestinian side of the border with Egypt in Rafah in the Gaza Strip, April 21, 2016.
Khalil Hamra, AP

A unusual sight has appeared recently on the Sinai-Gaza border. Numerous Hamas fighters are patrolling the boundary with Egypt, manning more checkpoints. This activity is a result of agreements reached last March between Hamas representatives, headed by Mahmoud al-Zahar, and Egyptian intelligence services, in an attempt to alleviate Egyptian fury at the Islamist organization. Egypt blamed the 2015 assassination of its Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat on Hamas, which almost led to a total severing of ties, and could have damaged the group's capacity to rule over Gaza.

Egypt and Hamas aren’t divulging details of the agreement they reached but obviously Egypt decided to grant Hamas another chance, attached to a list of demands, the most serious of which is a call for the group to dissociate itself from the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s decision is not unrelated to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to forge a Sunni alliance against Iran. Hamas would only have a token role in such an alliance. The agreement does benefit Egypt, however. Hamas apparently presented Egypt with documents proving their dissociation from the Brotherhood. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohari said in March that Hamas has turned the page in its relations with Egypt. “We won’t permit attacks against Egypt. We may be conceptually close to the Muslim Brotherhood but from an organizational, hierarchic or structural standpoint we have no connection with that movement. We’re purely a Palestinian movement, not operating for anyone else’s benefit.”

Egypt, asked by Hamas to open the Rafah border crossing and to desist from flooding tunnels used for smuggling, is waiting for concrete action, such as getting intelligence regarding cooperation between Hamas military units and jihadi groups operating in the Sinai Peninsula. Hamas has rid itself of two senior activists in the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigades, the military wing of Hamas. It informed Egypt that the two had joined the Islamic State in Sinai. This may herald a much more important strategic decision, indicating a move away from Iranian influence and a joining of the “Arab circle,” with Ezzedine al-Qassam’s stand in the matter still unclear. This group often operates autonomously, despite its hierarchic subordination to the political wing of Hamas.

The agreements between Hamas and Egypt give Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sissi the ability to influence the rules of the game between Hamas and Israel. A diplomatic source told Haaretz that talks between Israel and Egypt were held this week to ensure that Israel was not intent on embarking on another operation in Gaza after the discovery of the Hamas tunnel. Egypt delivered a message saying it is making every effort to stop the digging. Israel did not comment on these reports, nor on reports of Israeli drones operating in Sinai as part of a joint effort with Egypt to combat ISIS.

While Hamas can make agreements with the Egyptian government, ISIS in Sinai is different. Two attacks in March with over twenty casualties indicate that the battle is far from over. ISIS suffered badly in Egyptian aerial attacks and land assaults have become more effective. Damage to their communications networks appear to be substantial, forcing it to use social media and email, but this proves to be difficult in Sinai’s mountainous areas. Nevertheless, the organization maintains its supply lines around El Arish. Senior Egyptian officials say that the group is trying to expand its ranks, absorbing Al-Qaida-affiliated and other Jihadist groups in an attempt to create a united front. ISIS maintains close links with its activists in Gaza through its contact there, Shadi al-Mani’i. He was reported killed last December but this was unconfirmed. Hamas denies any Islamic State activity in Gaza but Egypt presented Hamas with proof that some ISIS operatives received training in the Strip. One focus of support for ISIS in Gaza is the Jaysh al-Islam group, commanded by Mumtaz Dughmush. He has a history of military activism and switching between groups. He was part of the Palestine Liberation Organization security forces before joining Hamas. He has ties to Ezzedine al-Qassam although he is not a member. Some Palestinian sources say his group is a straw group acting on behalf of ISIS and Ezzedine al-Qassam while allowing Hamas to disavow any involvement.

Perhaps the most important anchor, alongside Jaysh al-Islam and Salafist jihadist groups, on which ISIS in Sinai relies for logistical support, are Bedouin tribes, some of whose members have actively joined the ranks of the Islamic State. Following casualties in Egyptian airstrikes, tribal leaders warned Egypt that anger over these attacks could drive large numbers of Bedouin to ISIS. The Egyptian government has been trying for years to convince tribal leaders to collaborate in the fight against ISIS, but has achieved only partial success, with tribes waiting for substantial economic benefits.

So far there have only been plans on the drawing board. Perhaps now, with a Saudi promise of a $1.5 billion loan, something will happen. The Bedouin are used to promises and are not holding their breath. In the absence of a master plan for the development of the peninsula, the Egyptian government is conducting micro-policies that rely on opportunist tribal leaders. Development is now a crucial human and economic necessity, without which no effective campaign against ISIS can succeed. If Hamas breaks its ties with ISIS in Sinai, it will demand compensation such as an opening of the Rafah border crossing or support for a seaport, as well as recognition of its government.