Young Palestinians advance through a tunnel during a military exercise organized by Hamas, east of Gaza City, last year.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The shocking news that was publicized two weeks ago about the construction of a buffer zone and the blocking by Hamas of smuggling tunnels between the southern Gaza Strip and Egypt sounds like a big deal. Hamas security personnel can be seen getting down to business following an agreement that was reached this week in Cairo between Hamas leaders in Gaza and Egyptian intelligence leaders. The Egyptians’ goal is to put pressure on Hamas to close all ISIS smuggling routes between the Strip and Sinai.
The Egyptians don’t care what Hamas does within Gaza, but they do care what ISIS does in Sinai. On the other hand, Hamas is suffering through a real crisis now that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has imposed sanctions on Gaza, and in light of the reduction in the supply of electricity from Israel. As a result, Hamas leaders have agreed to the conditions the Egyptians are imposing on them, and are officially blocking all smuggling tunnels. In return, Gaza will receive food, equipment and electricity from Egypt.
The idea is to build a 100-meter-wide buffer zone on the border between Gaza and Egypt which is to be guarded by Hamas forces that are meant to prevent any smuggling through the tunnels. Cairo hopes that following this rapprochement with Hamas, it will gain control over the Islamist movement and influence its decisions in ways that align with Egyptian interests.
The two sides reached an agreement and Hamas immediately began implementing it on the ground. The bulldozers have already begun clearing the buffer zone, and Hamas officials claim that they have already blocked the tunnels as promised. On the face of it, it feels like we might finally have someone we can speak with in the Gaza Strip. Perhaps Hamas leaders have even begun thinking rationally and intelligently about leading a sovereign state. Furthermore, this was preceded by a dramatic and well-publicized change that Hamas made in its founding charter a few months ago.
This change included two main elements. First, Hamas recognizes the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, on the basis of the 1967 borders. Secondly, Hamas has disengaged from its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. These are mostly cosmetic changes that are carefully worded so that Hamas comes off looking like a more legitimate, grassroots movement with the intention of improving the lives of the Palestinian people.
However, the charter still contains a number of extremely problematic elements, such as its demand to abolish the Balfour Declaration, the Partition Plan and the Oslo Accords; its call for jihad to be waged in an effort to liberate historic Palestine from the river to the sea, from the north to the south; the eradication of the illegitimate Zionist entity and the designation of Palestine as an Arab, Muslim country on holy, blessed land; and the demand to eliminate the colonialism that followed the establishment of the Zionist movement. Or in their words: Zionist colonialism must disappear from Palestine.
The significance of the cosmetic changes Hamas made to its charter is important to the exact same extent as Hamas’s agreement to carry out Egypt’s request to construct a buffer zone and prevent smuggling. In short, Hamas’s acquiescence does not herald any real change in Hamas’s paradigm, goals or methods.
None of this bodes well for Israel or the rest of the Middle East. The fact that Hamas made changes to its charter does not mean that the organization’s spiritual leaders have had a change of heart. Hamas’s vision is still based on that of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is to establish a radical Sunni Islamic caliphate in the region, similar to that of ISIS. This is much more important to Hamas than the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
For the same reasons, the agreements Hamas made with Egyptian leaders recently have no real strategic importance. Hamas watching out for smugglers is like leaving the cat to guard the cream, since it completely clashes with Hamas’s interests. It’s clear to everyone that it’s in Hamas’s best interest to keep smuggling routes open so that it can continue bringing in goods, weapons, technological equipment, money and fighters, as well as offering ISIS logistical support in Sinai.
The meaning of all this is simple. Hamas will do everything in its power to create an image, regardless of however false it appears, that will convince the Egyptians to give it the food, electricity and equipment Gaza so badly needs. Let’s not be naïve in thinking that while Hamas is earnestly guarding the old tunnels, other Hamas operatives aren’t busy building new ones and preparing for their next confrontation with Israel.
The real test will be the extent to which they succeed in concealing their actions from the Egyptian intelligence agency’s and Israel’s scrutiny. Hamas should assume that Big Brother (Egypt and Israel) will be watching. Both countries’ intelligence agencies will be searching for any hint of Hamas activity that contravenes the agreement it signed with the Egyptians. In any event, it’s unlikely that Hamas will abide by the agreement for any significant amount of time, and therefore we shouldn’t count on any real change coming as a result.
Hamas remains the same Hamas, and its goals remain the same goals. The only thing that’s changed is Hamas’s tactics. Time will tell if we end up having someone in the Gaza Strip we can engage in fair business with.The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.