El-Sissi leading a Churchillian fight against Hamas
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Analysis

El-Sissi leading a Churchillian fight against Hamas

As a Cairo court defines the entire Gaza Islamist group as a terror organization, Egypt’s president shows he’s more than just talk

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.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaks in front of the state-run TV ahead of a military funeral for troops killed in an assault in the Sinai Peninsula, as he stands with army commanders in Cairo, Egypt, October 25, 2014. (photo credit: AP/MENA, Mohammed Samaha)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaks in front of the state-run TV ahead of a military funeral for troops killed in an assault in the Sinai Peninsula, as he stands with army commanders in Cairo, Egypt, October 25, 2014. (photo credit: AP/MENA, Mohammed Samaha)

It’s not yet clear quite how an Egyptian court’s decision Saturday to define Hamas, in its entirety, as a terror group will play out. Hitherto, only the organization’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, was defined as such, but the new ruling widens the definition to include the political branch. Does this mean that from here on out Egypt will completely ban Hamas, cutting all ties to the group including those involving Cairo’s own intelligence agencies?

What can be said with a high degree of certainty, especially in light of the almost hysterical response to the ruling in the Gaza Strip, is that on a symbolic level this is Cairo’s declaration of war on Hamas. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is proving that there is only one leader in the Middle East who can be compared to Winston Churchill, and he sits in Cairo.

With Sissi, it’s not just talk. It’s action too. He has, memorably, now made a series of speeches calling for a revolution in Islamic thought, to shift the emphasis away from violence and to create a more humane Islam. He has declared war upon radical Islam wherever it may be — not only upon the Islamic State and its affiliates, who have attacked Egyptians in Libya and Egypt proper, but on the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates as well.

Many months ago, the president set out on a wide-scale military operation in the Sinai Peninsula that his associates have assessed will last two to three years. During this period, he has said, Egypt will pay a price, perhaps a heavy one, but there is no choice and no escape from carrying it out.

When IS operatives in Libya abducted Coptic Egyptians and executed them, Sissi again did not hesitate: He sent Egyptian air force jets to bomb dozens of IS targets on Libyan soil.

The court decision underlines his approach: There is no distinction between a military wing and a political wing. He’ll leave any such nuances to various international officials, mostly in Europe, who have recently tried to create a dialogue with Hamas.

An Egyptian army vehicle patrols along the border with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in the divided border town of Rafah on November 4, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Mohamed El-Sherbeny)
An Egyptian army vehicle patrols along the border with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in the divided border town of Rafah on November 4, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Mohamed El-Sherbeny)

For that matter, Sissi and his confidants are also unable to fathom the logic behind Israel’s somewhat placatory policies toward Hamas during Operation Protective Edge and in its aftermath, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has become Israel’s punching bag.

The Egyptian leader’s talk-and-action approach has created a great deal of anxiety in Gaza; near panic, in fact.

Hamas spokesmen have held demonstrations in the Strip against the court’s decision, called for more, and have directly criticized Egypt and Sissi. Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said at one such rally that the ruling means Egypt is now “joining the ranks of the enemy…Whoever makes such decisions is serving the enemy freely.”

It is plainly difficult for al-Masri and his friends to accept that, as far as Cairo is concerned, the real enemy sits in Gaza, while Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are home to partners in the fight against terror.

There were those in Hamas who had hoped in recent months that the Egyptians would open up the Rafah crossings with Gaza, particularly following last summer’s war, but the iron man has made it clear that this will not happen as long as Hamas controls the Gazan side of the crossings. And a man who refuses to be impressed by thousands of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in Cairo is unlikely to change his policies because of bitter protests by a few hundred demonstrators in Gaza’s Jabaliya neighborhood.

We now wait to see how Saturday’s court’s decision plays out. Will the few Hamas officials active in Egypt be deported? Will Egyptian Intelligence cut its strong ties with the Hamas leadership, effectively ending its ability to mediate between the group and Israel?

Quite possibly. Egyptian Intelligence has more than once demanded that Hamas hand over terror suspects, stop the smuggling via underground tunnels, and stop providing refuge for Sinai terrorists. Hamas has not responded. Furthermore, Egyptian Intelligence knows of the ties between key Hamas military wing operatives, such as Ayman Nofal, and Islamic State cells in Sinai (formerly Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) that attack Egyptian soldiers.

It is not for nothing that one of Hamas’s Gaza leaders, Mahmoud al-Zahar, has warned against an Egyptian military strike in Gaza. Such action, unthinkable before el-Sissi came to power, simply cannot be ruled out in light of the president’s decisive policies against what Egypt now fully defines as a terrorist organization.

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