Gaza and Egypt

Cairo’s willingness to strengthen ties with an anti-Semitic terrorist organization is testimony to a change for the worse in the new Egypt.

Rocket fire from Gaza (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rocket fire from Gaza
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last Wednesday night, Islamic Jihad fired a Grad rocket that struck near Rehovot to mark the October 1995 assassination in Malta of Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shikaki, a murderously zealous ideologue inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran and an avid supporter of suicide bombings as a means of terrorizing Israel.
Various news media, including the BBC, have reported that the Mossad was responsible for Shikaki’s assassination.
The situation quickly deteriorated. On Saturday afternoon, Israel retaliated, launching a sortie against an Islamic Jihad cell preparing to carry out additional rocket attacks against Israel. Five terrorists were killed, including Ahmed Sheikh Khalil, a senior figure who was responsible for the organization’s rocket production facilities.
Enraged by Khalil’s demise, Islamic Jihad fired more than 20 rockets and mortar shells at Israel, one of which killed Moshe Ami, a father of four from Ashkelon. Four others were wounded in the barrage.
The tragic irony is that the cell operated from what used to be Bnei Atzmon, one of 17 Jewish communities making up Gush Katif. These Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip were forcibly evacuated in the summer of 2005 as part of a unilateral move to end “occupation” and facilitate the beginnings of Palestinian statehood.
Instead of being used for development and prosperity, this evacuated land has become the launching pad for death and destruction.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has no interest in entering into a military confrontation with Israel right now. It has too much to lose.
Prolonged fighting could delay or even endanger the second phase of the Schalit deal, in which an additional 550 Palestinians prisoners are slated to be released.
Hamas is also interested in maintaining quiet and stability in order to foster relations with Egypt.
Post-Mubarak Egypt is taking an increasingly active role in the Gaza Strip. Cairo was instrumental in helping to clinch a shaky cease-fire agreement between Islamic Jihad and Israel early Sunday. The deal did not hold, with more rockets being fired into Israel.
A day earlier, for the first time since Hamas seized control from Fatah in June 2007, representatives of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood visited the Gaza Strip. This was yet another clear signal of a shift in Cairo’s posture toward the Islamist movement since the ouster in February of Hosni Mubarak. And with the Muslim Brotherhood expected to fare well in Egypt’s upcoming elections, Hamas has an even more pressing interest in maintaining calm so as to consolidate its ties with Cairo while strengthening its control over Gaza.
At the same time, Hamas, which could easily stop Islamic Jihad’s attacks against Israel if it wanted to, is under pressure, in particular from Iran, Islamic Jihad’s patron, to accommodate the rejectionist camp, at least for a limited period.
Hamas was placed in a similar situation in August, when the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees carried out a series of cross-border attacks near the Egyptian border that left eight Israelis dead. Hamas felt compelled at the time to join the firing, but only after sensing it was losing popularity in the Arab street to the more extreme factions.
Hamas’s warming relations with Egypt might lend some short-term stability to the Gaza Strip.
But Cairo’s willingness to strengthen ties with an anti-Semitic terrorist organization bent on destroying the Jewish state is also testimony to a change for the worse in the new Egypt.
With the Muslim Brotherhood expected to notch up an impressive victory in the upcoming Egyptian elections, the ties between Egypt and Gaza will inevitably strengthen further, while relations between Cairo and Jerusalem will undoubtedly suffer.
And that cannot augur well for the region, or for the peace process in the Middle East.