Deceiving Cairo and helping IS, Hamas sets Gaza on course for new troubles

Hamas officials promised Egypt two months ago they’d end cooperation with IS fighters in Sinai. But Gaza’s rulers have done nothing of the kind, and the repercussions could impact Israel

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative: Salafi demonstrators in Gaza waving Islamic State flags during a demonstration that took place on January 19, 2015. (Courtesy MEMRI)
Illustrative: Salafi demonstrators in Gaza waving Islamic State flags during a demonstration that took place on January 19, 2015. (Courtesy MEMRI)

A few days ago, Hamas’s security forces in Gaza arrested a group of Salafi activists — members of Salafiya Jihadiya, a movement made up of Islamist groups that identify mainly with Islamic State. The head of the group is the son of a well-known Salafi preacher from the Shahin family. Hamas officials claimed that the group was planning to cross Gaza’s border into Sinai to join members of Islamic State in their fight against Egypt.

News of the arrests created the sense that Hamas was working to stop attempts by these Gazan activists to help Islamic State in its war against the Egyptian army. The arrests were presented as part of an impressive operation by Hamas, fulfilling promises its representatives made to Egypt during a visit to Cairo two months ago. At that time, amid escalating tension between Egypt and Hamas and accusations of close collaboration between Hamas’s military wing and Walayat Sinai (Islamic State’s branch in Sinai), the high-ranking Hamas delegates assured Egyptian officials that Hamas would end its relationship with Islamic State there and then.

Hamas has indeed since reinforced its troop deployment along the Gaza-Egypt border, and promised to stop all smuggling done via the tunnels there. The Salafi arrests thus provided further ostensible proof of the new Hamas commitment to Egypt’s well-being. (Those arrests, in turn, prompted rocket fire at Israel two days ago, for which the Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade, a Salafi group, claimed responsibility — a case of Israel being targeted by a Gaza terror group angry with Hamas.)

Yet there seems to be a wide gap between what senior Hamas officials are telling the Egyptians and what the heads of its military wing are actually doing on the ground. Despite the promises by Gaza’s rulers to stop the smuggling to and from Sinai and the recent arrests, Hamas continues to maintain a delicate and complicated web of interests and alliances with Islamic State in Sinai.

According to an abundance of Arab, Israeli and Palestinian sources, wounded members of Islamic State are still being brought into Gaza for medical treatment at almost the same rate as before the Hamas delegation’s visit to Cairo two months ago. Likewise, arms smuggling from the Gaza Strip to Sinai and vice versa continues, albeit at a reduced rate, supervised by members of Hamas’s military wing. Overall, in short, it is largely business as usual.

Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai in 2015 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

When Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), mentioned some of these facts in interviews on the Saudi Arabian news site Elaph two weeks ago, Hamas issued vigorous denials, of course. But other sources — not Israeli ones, but sources actually living in Gaza — confirm that over the past 10 months, dozens of Islamic State fighters have received medical treatment in the hospital in Khan Yunis, for example. This is astonishing considering Hamas’s delicate relationship with Egypt.

Yahya Sinwar (screenshot)
Yahya Sinwar (screenshot)

The transfer of wounded Islamic State fighters is not the work of some low-ranking activist looking for a quick way to make money. It is a deliberate policy of Hamas that began in mid-2015. The Hamas official in charge of arranging medical treatment for Islamic State members is Mohammed Sutari, a well-known activist from the Khan Yunis refugee camp. This is the same place that produced the hard core of Hamas’s military wing, including notorious terror chief Mohammed Deif and Yahya and Muhammad Sinwar.

This week the Elaph website, quoting a Palestinian source, published the name of one Islamic State fighter who is receiving medical treatment in Gaza. Maj. Gen. Mordechai named two more: Ibrahim Matar, who helps Sutari coordinate medical treatment for Islamic State members, and Said Abdelal, a Gazan from Rafah who is responsible for coordinating Islamic State’s military activities (apparently training) in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas military wing commander Muhammad Deif
Hamas military wing commander Muhammad Deif

The most problematic factor for Cairo may be the smuggling of arms between Gaza and Sinai. There’s been a dramatic reduction in the scope, but Hamas still manages to bring quantities of arms into the Gaza Strip and to move arms and ammunition from Gaza to Sinai. Constrained by Egypt’s crackdown on the border tunnels, some of the smuggling has been done recently by sea.

In addition, despite those widely reported Salafi arrests, several former Hamas activists (whose ideology leans toward that of those same Salafist groups) have crossed the border in recent weeks to join the fighting in Sinai against the Egyptian army. The best-known case is that of Musa Abdallah el-Mor, a former member of Hamas’s military wing whose family set up a mourning tent in Rafah after he was killed in Sinai while fighting against the Egyptian army there.

All of this cross-border activity takes place under the noses of Egyptian officials, who heard the promises of the Hamas senior officials and then watched in dismay over the past two months as Hamas, and especially its military wing, did as they pleased and kept up their relationship of interests with Islamic State.

Egypt’s response to this, it must be said, shows a degree of confusion and perhaps a lack of clear strategy.

The Egyptians opened the Rafah border crossing briefly, for humanitarian reasons. At the same time, they allowed tons of concrete into the Gaza Strip when concrete and wood were in short supply there. They did this even though they knew that Hamas was using such materials to build tunnels, including tunnels that crossed into Sinai.

Palestinians inspect the damage after Egyptian forces flooded smuggling tunnels dug beneath the Gaza-Egypt border, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on September 18, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)
Palestinians inspect the damage after Egyptian forces flooded smuggling tunnels dug beneath the Gaza-Egypt border, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on September 18, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

These might have been interpreted as goodwill gestures by Egypt, but Egyptian intelligence heads quickly realized that the likes of Deif and Yahya Sinwar were unmoved, and have no intention of ordering a complete halt to cooperation with Islamic State anytime soon. It is doubtful, then, that Cairo will again open the Rafah crossing for periods longer than just a day or two, even with Ramadan approaching.

In other words, almost two years after the 50-day Operation Protective Edge Israel-Hamas war, and despite several statements suggesting that relations between Cairo and Gaza might be about to improve, that’s not happening.

Instead, the Gaza Strip is spiraling back to the dangerous routine of tension with Egypt and a humanitarian situation that is slowly but consistently deteriorating. One can only hope that we are not in for a rerun of the summer of 2014.

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