Ending honeymoon, Sinai turmoil sends Gaza back to square one
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Analysis

Ending honeymoon, Sinai turmoil sends Gaza back to square one

After assault on army, Egyptians call for crackdown on Islamist groups, inluding Hamas, leaving residents of the Strip expecting a renewed closure

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Palestinians gather at the Rafah Border Crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, as they await permission to enter Egypt, June 12, 2015. (Flash90/Aaed Tayeh)
Palestinians gather at the Rafah Border Crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, as they await permission to enter Egypt, June 12, 2015. (Flash90/Aaed Tayeh)

As a state of war engulfs northern Sinai following a deadly coordinated attack by the Islamic State on Egyptian army positions Wednesday morning, the silence of neighboring Hamas-controlled Gaza is deafening.

A laconic statement published by Gaza’s interior ministry spokesman Iyad el-Bozom informed the public that security reinforcements have been sent to the Sinai frontier “in order to stabilize the security situation and keep the borders safe.”

Hamas has long tried to distance itself from the ongoing jihadi violence across the border, in towns like Egyptian Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and el-Arish. But the Egyptian street, and its leadership, remain unconvinced.

The brief period of detente between Hamas and Egypt — which opened its Rafah border in recent weeks to allow thousands of Palestinians and tons of cement into the Strip — is now over.

“Close the [Rafah] crossing for good! Never open it again!” demanded Egyptian TV host Ahmad Moussa on Wednesday night, asserting that no fewer than 200 terrorists, including 20 foreign fighters, have entered Sinai from Gaza. He accused Hamas of taking part in the attack that Egypt’s military said left 17 soldiers dead. Other officials put the death toll much higher.

Smoke rises in Egypt's northern Sinai, as seen from the border of the Gaza Strip, on July 1, 2015, amid fierce clashes between government forces and Islamic State-affiliated gunmen. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90)
Smoke rises in Egypt’s northern Sinai, as seen from the border of the Gaza Strip, on July 1, 2015, amid fierce clashes between government forces and Islamic State-affiliated gunmen. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90)

The official Facebook page of the Egyptian army has been posting photos of slain gunmen lying in the sand, AK-47s resting on their bloodied camouflage uniforms. The page’s new banner, featuring images of F-16s and battleships on the backdrop of Giza’s pyramids, reads “Victory or martyrdom.”

“If people inside [Gaza] die, then let them die. Is it better that our children die? I’d rather maintain the safety of my country,” said Moussa.

That sentiment was echoed by other Egytpian civil society groups, who accused Hamas on Thursday of smuggling advanced weapons into Sinai with Turkish and Qatari financing.

“The atmosphere in Gaza is very pessimistic now,” the local employee of a European nongovernmental organization told The Times of Israel Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This will definitely affect Gaza negatively.”

In recent weeks, following a thawing in Hamas’s relations with Egypt, Egyptian authorities opened Rafah border crossing, allowing thousands of Gazans to leave and enter Egypt. But now, with the border closed again, Gazans felt they were back to square one.

“Even if the Rafah crossing is opened, people can’t enter Egypt because it is too dangerous on the Egyptian side,” the Gaza NGO employee said.

Meanwhile, Israel has left the Erez crossing open to Palestinian civilian traffic, despite a security escalation attributed to Hamas in the West Bank. According to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), 1,475 people left and entered Gaza through the northern crossing on Tuesday.

Palestinian pilgrims cross the Beit Hanoun checkpoint on their way to the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza and then to Jerusalem, during the three-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, in the northern Gaza Strip, Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Adel Hana)
Palestinian pilgrims cross the Beit Hanoun checkpoint on their way to the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza and then to Jerusalem, during the three-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, in the northern Gaza Strip, Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. (AP/Adel Hana)

After briefly being shut following the Sinai attacks on Wednesday, the commercial Kerem Shalom crossing between Gaza and Israel reopened on Thursday, allowing 470 trucks loaded with produce, building materials and humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, Hamas’s interior ministry reported on its website.

On the political level, the brazen assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat in Cairo on Monday has eliminated any hope of rapprochement between Egypt and Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is suspected by many of orchestrating the hit. At Barakat’s funeral, demonstrators shouted “There is no God but Allah and the Brotherhood is the enemy of Allah.”

The subsequent killing of nine senior Muslim Brotherhood members in an Egyptian army raid on Wednesday has left movement loyalists threatening an escalation in violence, deepening the rift between the outlawed Islamic movement and the state.

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