Analysis

Gaza Crisis Leaves Hamas No Choice but to Play by Egypt's Rules

Closer relations between Cairo and the Strip would ease the pressure of the energy crisis, but the risks for Israel are clear

Palestinians gather in front of the gate at Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza during a protest against the blockade, Gaza Strip, July 3, 2017.
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to visit Cairo this Sunday for an urgent meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. The trip looks like a last attempt by Abbas to block the developing agreement between Egypt and the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. The deal would station people loyal to Abbas rival Mohammed Dahlan at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza in exchange for increased civilian traffic through it.

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The Egyptians, who surprised their Israeli counterparts with the determination and speed in which they are advancing the initiative with Hamas, are trying to achieve a number of goals all at once: To draw Hamas closer to them and force the organization to accept Egyptian authority; to limit the influence of Qatar in Gaza; to punish Abbas – who rejected Egyptian entreaties for reconciliation with Dahlan at the end of last year; and to put Dahlan in position to inherit Abbas’ crown in the future – as a leader who can control both Gaza and the West Bank simultaneously.

A limited reconciliation between Hamas and Dahlan, alongside easing the blockade on Gaza, now seems a possibility. Achieving Egypt’s more ambitious goals will be more complicated, though.

Hamas will never give up power of its own accord, and it has yet to overcome its disgust for Dahlan – the man who repressed Hamas with an iron fist at the orders of then-PLO leader Yasser Arafat in the late 1990s. In addition, Dahlan was the person responsible for the humiliation of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, when Palestinian Authority security forces imprisoned him and cut off half his beard.

Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar (R) visits the border with Egypt, in Rafah in southern Gaza Strip on July 6, 2017.
SAID KHATIB/AFP

Ghazi Hamad, one of Hamas' senior leaders in Gaza, said this week he was disgusted by the contacts with Dahlan’s people and that after he shakes their hands he will need to “run to wash his hands many times.” He added, though, that Hamas has no choice. Some of the contacts with Dahlan were handled directly by Yahya Sinwar, Hamas' new leader in Gaza.

Sinwar and Dahlan grew up together in the alleyways of the Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza. Mohammed Deif, the Hamas military leader who barely escaped with his life after a number of Israeli attempts to kill him, also grew up in the same camp, but is a few years younger than the other two.

Hamas needs Dahlan and Egypt to ease the Strip's electricity and water crisis. That is why the organization is willing to accept a number of things it refused to do in the past. The group’s dependence on Egypt has only grown because Qatar, its main financial backer, is the subject of a broad diplomatic and economic attack being led by Saudi Arabia.

Israel, too, understands the need for easing the situation in Gaza. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Eisenkot told Knesset members Wednesday that the electricity crisis in Gaza has forced Hamas to pay, for the very first time, 8 million shekels ($2.3 million) for the diesel fuel Egypt sent in from Sinai to run the Strip's only power plant. Until now, the PA has funded the electricity for Gaza, and Abbas’ decision to stop paying is what sped up the crisis.

The Israeli defense establishment admits it was late in acknowledging the close relationship between changes in the economic situation in the Gaza Strip and the possibility of a military escalation – something that should have been clear even before Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.

Until the recent Egyptian intervention, the present situation has been described as the tensest since the end of the fighting in August 2014. As a result, Israel will not interfere with the Egyptian actions, in particular because it knows it will take at least three years before the project for new infrastructure in Gaza starts showing positive results.

Still, the risks involved are clear. First, Dahlan is seen as the most corrupt of all Palestinian officials – even though he faces competition from a huge number of worthy participants. It is likely that his return to being part of the power structure in Gaza will quickly lead to internal opposition in Gaza.

Second, the opening of the Rafah crossing under Egyptian auspices will increase the danger of weapons and explosives being smuggled through the crossing.

As a very experienced Israeli defense official cynically declared this week, there is no chance that Gaza's weapons will rust – because they will be smuggled into Gaza inside a fuel tanker.