Analysis |

Hamas Rockets Put Egypt in a Bind

Recent escalations could thwart attempts to establish an agreed-upon joint Gazan government that would serve both Egyptian and Israeli interests

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A house struck by Gaza rocket in Mishmeret on March 25, 2019.
A house struck by Gaza rocket in Mishmeret on March 25, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A few hours after the rocket hit Moshav Mishmeret, Hamas sent an urgent message to Egypt, saying it hadn’t fired the rocket Monday morning and that, like when rockets were fired at Tel Aviv two weeks ago, “it was a mistake.” Hamas also added that it was conducting a feverish investigation to find those responsible.

But Egypt, like Israel, isn’t buying the “mistaken fire” excuse. In tough discussions, Egyptian intelligence officials told the Hamas leadership that the rocket would not only put the lives of Gaza residents at risk but also the understandings and agreements the organization had reached in February with Egypt.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 20Credit: Haaretz

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At the beginning of this month, after Ismail Haniyeh returned from a three-week stay in Egypt, he was full of compliments and optimism about the close ties with Egypt. “Our relations with Egypt are not an issue for negotiation anymore; they’ve moved to the strategic depth stage,” senior Hamas officials said. This strategic depth is based, in part, on Egypt’s interest in blocking any action against Israel by Hamas or others in Gaza that is liable to disrupt the close Egyptian-Israeli military and intelligence cooperation.

An Israeli military operation against Hamas in which many civilians are certain to be killed could put Egypt into a tight spot, in which it must demonstrate solidarity with the besieged Gaza Strip even as President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi publicly declares his cooperation with Israel. Egypt’s position as a strategic ally of Israel is not at risk right now; the cooperation will continue as usual. Sissi’s problem, however, will be with his domestic rivals and the pressures he’ll face when the Arab League convenes in Tunisia at the end of the month.

Sissi, together with Saudi Arabia, opposed the declarations of the parliament speakers who gathered in Jordan this month and adopted another resolution against normalization with Israel. He seeks to avoid embarrassing situations in which he will have to condemn Israel for an Israeli response to rocket fire that he actually believes is legitimate. That’s why Egypt made enormous efforts on Monday to at least limit the scope of the Israeli military action and demand that Hamas act immediately against whoever fired the rocket.

However, it will be difficult for Hamas to carry out a broad, public action against the groups it claims carried out the attack, such as Islamic Jihad or the Salafist organizations, because the Hamas leadership and Iz al-Din al-Qassam commanders immediately went underground, fearing Israel might target them for assassination. The search for culprits is secondary now, as most Hamas activity since the attack has been focused on absorbing Israel’s retaliation. The group canceled a large conference that was supposed to take place Monday, warning the public to stay off the streets and calling on them to stockpile food and water.

Hamas doesn’t only understand Egypt’s position, it needs Egyptian cooperation so it can assure that Qatari funds continue to stream into the Strip. These funds won’t come through them but through organizations and government ministries that will pass them to the needy and to temporary workers, thousands of whom have been recruited so they could be paid “salaries” and thus launder the Qatari aid money.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi speaks at a summit between the Arab League and European Union member sates, February 24, 2019. Credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Hamas’ next move is no less important and involves setting up a “united resistance front” and a joint operations room for Hamas and all the other organizations, including Fatah in the Gaza Strip, to coordinate the military activity and establish a joint council that will draw up an agreed version of the Palestinian position toward the “threat” of U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan.

This is a far-reaching ambition, since in the past there have been joint operations rooms set up that didn’t last very long, but it’s possible that given the new circumstances the move could actually succeed this time, even if all the factions are not included. This idea had been widely discussed by the Hamas leadership after Haniyeh returned from Egypt with four Hamas prisoners who’d been released from an Egyptian prison after three-and-a-half years.

A Hamas official close to the talks in Cairo told Haaretz that the idea of setting up a united resistance front was discussed with Egypt, which sees it as a practical solution to stopping the periodic fire at Israel, one that would subject all the organizations to cooperating under the Egyptian umbrella. But this also requires PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ agreement, after he failed to even establish a Palestinian unity government because Hamas refused to take part in it.

The establishment of an umbrella group of all 20 organizations in Gaza will situate Hamas as the agreed-upon boss in the Strip, but this will also make it fully responsible for meeting the conditions set by Egypt, particularly preventing a confrontation with Israel. This move, if implemented, could help Hamas take responsibility for the process of rebuilding the Strip and obtaining legitimate donations. From Egypt’s perspective, this would be an important stage towards the Palestinian reconciliation that Egypt seeks, and the basis for cooperation between Hamas and whoever will be elected Palestinian president when elections are held.

But now the rocket fired at Moshav Mishmeret could blow up the chance of establishing an agreed-upon joint Gazan government that would serve both Egyptian and Israeli interests, without Israel having to conduct diplomatic negotiations with it. Israel, which has been a partner to the Egyptian efforts to establish a leadership in Gaza that is committed to Egyptian interests, must now decide how to reconcile between the emotional political fervor to “respond with force” and mete out punishment for the rocket fire, and a realistic policy that takes into account the day after the military operation, when there will be no choice but to renew efforts to restore calm.

Israel, by declaring Hamas “solely responsible” for everything that happens in Gaza, has itself turned the group into a strategic partner – one that has not given up on “resistance” but has already entered the stage of political agreements through Egypt. This could be the most important fruit of the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, but it must be given time to ripen even if this demands a difficult measure of restraint.

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