PALESTINIANS wait in October at the Rafah border crossing for relatives to return to Gaza from Egypt, during a temporary easing of the Egypt blockade for humanitarian cases..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a significant policy shift, Egypt has begun to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip, giving its two million residents greater access to the outside world and the prospect of an eventual trade relationship.
Exits from Gaza's Rafah Crossing to Egypt have more than quadrupled in the last three months compared with the same period last year, according to Gisha, an Israeli NGO that monitors the flow of goods and people into and out of the Strip. Egypt allowed the unprecedented delivery to Gaza of forty cars through Rafah two weeks ago in a symbol of importing potential, and since October Cairo has hosted three delegations including businessmen academics, journalists and civil society leaders for discussions on cooperation.
This marks a break from Egypt's policies since the 2013 ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, the Moslem Brotherhood leader, in a coup, and the election of Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi as president. The Sisi regime has treated Hamas as a bitter enemy-part and parcel of the Moslem Brotherhood it reviles. Egypt waged a campaign to destroy the Hamas-run smuggling tunnels linking the Gaza Strip to Egyptian territory and also kept Rafah closed with few exceptions in a bid to complement the Israeli naval blockade and tight border regime against the Strip and turn Gazans against Hamas.
But now Cairo appears to have recognized that this hasn't worked and it is staking out newer, kinder and less oppressive ways of dealing with the Gaza population. It is too early to say whether the trends will lead to a sustained thaw with Hamas or whether a continuation of the traditional enmity will preclude this.
In Egypt's view, Hamas has been nothing less than a threat to its national security. Cairo charges that Hamas assists Islamic State fighters waging an insurgency against it in Sinai. It also accused Hamas of being involved last year in the assassination of its prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat. Hamas denies both of these charges but Naji Shurrab, a political scientist at al-Azhar University in Gaza says it may be aiding the insurgents."I think Hamas's influence is beyond Gaza because some of these movements need the help of Hamas. Maybe Gaza is a safe haven for them,"he says.Palestinian youth gunned down by Egyptian troops in Rafah
"Egypt wants one thing from Gaza, from Hamas, and that is security, to help contain the extremist movements in Sinai,"says Shurrab. "Hamas wants Egypt to facilitate passage at Rafah and to recognize Hamas as the de facto ruler of Gaza."
The change at Rafah has been dramatic and is being felt throughout the Strip. "Over the past two and a half months there has been a major breakthrough regarding easing restrictions of movement," says Mkheimar Abu Sada, also a political scientist at al-Azhar University, and a participant in the first delegation of Gazans invited to Cairo in October. He termed the atmosphere of the meetings, hosted by an Egyptian think tank with the participation of intelligence officials "very positive."
One outcome of the meetings is that Gaza business leaders have started discussions with the Egyptians on turning Rafah into a commercial crossing. Until now it has just been for people.
Significantly, the Egyptians did not invite any Hamas supporters to join in the meetings. Notable among those attending were backers of Mohammed Dahlan, the Egyptian and United Arab Emirates-backed former Gaza security chief and main rival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Egypt and Dahlan are hoping that he will get some of the credit for the opening of Rafah and that it will add to his popularity in the Strip. The Egyptian policy shift came immediately after Abbas rebuffed pressure from Egypt and other Arab countries to reconcile with Dahlan.
Abu Sada believes that a major reason Egypt decided to shift policy is that it does not want to be perceived as oppressing the Gazans. "The Egyptians didn't like to be seen in the eyes of the Palestinians and the Arabs as cooperating with Israel and besieging the Gaza Strip," he said.
Another reason is regional politics: Egypt was worried its policies could drive Hamas into the embrace of its enemies, Turkey and Qatar, which have undertaken projects in Gaza. "Egypt understands that if it doesn't conduct relations with Hamas and that if it simply closes the crossing, Turkey and Qatar's influence could grow,"says Ofir Winter, an Egypt specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies. "It doesn't want to push Hamas into their hands and it wants to preserve its influence with a pipeline of constructive relations."
Winter adds that another factor for Egypt is its relations with the incoming Trump administration. The importance Egypt attaches to this was evident last week, when, under pressure from Trump, Cairo withdrew its sponsorship of the UN security council resolution condemning Israeli settlement policies. In Winter's view, Egypt wants to establish credentials with the new US administration as a mediator with wide influence in the region, including an ability to mediate inter-Palestinian disputes between Fatah and Hamas.
"Egypt is counting on Trump increasing US aid and they want to establish their value with the US as a symbol of mediation and stability,"he says. "Better relations with Hamas can serve them in this respect."
However, there is a major sticking point between Egypt and Hamas, Abu Sada notes. In talks early this year, Egypt demanded that Hamas destroy tunnels, monitor the border between Gaza and Egypt and intercept the movement of jihadists. Hamas met these demands, Abu Sada says, but refused an additional demand: that it turn over to Egypt members of its armed wing whom Cairo accused of supporting the insurgency in Sinai. "Hamas is open to better relations and believes that Egypt is the lung that enables the Palestinians to breath, but it's a red line for it to hand over members to the Egyptians." Abu Sada says.
That raises the question of whether the two sides can actually concur on what Egypt considers its vital security interests. Cairo views defeating the Sinai insurgency as the key to stability in Egypt as a whole. If Egypt feels that its concerns on the Sinai insurgency are not being addressed, or worse than that, are being flouted, than any warming in ties may prove to be a mere flicker.