Easing blockade on Gaza, Egypt may be signaling thaw with Hamas

Cairo considers establishing a free trade zone between the Strip and Sinai, while the Islamist terror group has begun arresting dozens of Salafists

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.

Hamas security forces next to an Egyptian watch tower on the border between Egypt and Gaza, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, September 21, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Hamas security forces next to an Egyptian watch tower on the border between Egypt and Gaza, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, September 21, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

After three and a half years of tension, there are signs of a thaw between Egypt and Hamas.

In the past month, Egypt has allowed the Rafah border crossing to remain open longer than usual, and permitted a larger number of Gaza’s residents to cross the border. Now it is considering a series of economic initiatives to improve the economic situation in both Hamas-run Gaza and in the adjacent Sinai peninsula. Over the past two weeks, a delegation of economists from Gaza traveled to Egypt to discuss these projects.

Most dramatically, Cairo is reportedly considering establishing a free trade zone in the city of Rafah, which straddles the Sinai-Gaza border, that would allow Gazan traders to purchase goods directly from the Egyptian side of the city. Such a move would amount to lifting part of the Egyptian blockade that, coupled with the Israeli security blockade on the Jewish state’s border with Gaza, has ground economy activity in the territory to a near standstill, kept alive only by a handful of traders making closely monitored purchases from Israel. Egypt and Israel maintain the blockade to prevent Hamas, a terror group openly committed to destroying Israel, from importing weaponry.

Mohammad Dahlan, a former high-ranking Fatah official from Gaza who has become a political nemesis to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is reportedly linked to the negotiations between Cairo and Hamas. Dahlan’s wife Jaleela recently entered Gaza through the Rafah border crossing to accompany the economic delegation as it traveled to Egypt.

The apparent thaw has already been felt on the ground, according to trade figures from the Strip, which show a recent increase in Egyptian goods entering Gaza through Rafah.

Gaza has long relied on Egypt, the most populous Arab state and its only other neighbor besides Israel, for supplies and external access. Even at the height of the Egyptian blockade, a great deal of Gaza’s raw materials came from Egypt.

In the past year, 64,469 tons of cement, 2,777 cubic meters of wood and 16,800 tons of iron were brought through the Rafah crossing into the Strip — numbers that reflect a steady growth in commerce. A large proportion of those goods eventually found their way to Hamas’s military wing, and some have been used to construct terror tunnels, Israel believes.

Former Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)
Former Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

It is not clear to what extent the newly warming relationship between Egypt and Hamas is a function of the deterioration in ties between Cairo and the West Bank-based Abbas over, among other factors, Egypt’s closeness to Dahlan. The Egyptian change of direction certainly does not stem from any new-found love in Cairo for Hamas, which the government of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has accused of abetting an Islamic State-affiliated insurgency in the Sinai that has orchestrated terror attacks in Egypt’s capital and prompted a massive, ongoing Egyptian military crackdown in the peninsula. Nor has Sissi forgotten that Hamas backed the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2014-15 battle within Egypt between the army and the Islamists.

Egyptian President Abdel -Fattah el-Sissi delivers a televised speech on May 17, 2016 (screen capture)
Egyptian President Abdel -Fattah el-Sissi delivers a televised speech on May 17, 2016 (screen capture)

After Sissi, a former head of the army, took control of Egypt from the elected Islamist president Mohammad Morsi in 2014, Cairo punished Hamas by systematically destroying thousands of cross-border tunnels and shuttering its border crossings to the Palestinian enclave. That action effectively left tens of thousands of Sinai Bedouin without a source of income, and likely swelled the ranks of the Islamist insurgency against Sissi’s government.

But as the campaign in Sinai grinds on, some see the new thaw as a signal that Egypt may be expanding its anti-extremist efforts to non-military realms, including by attempting to siphon off Hamas as an ally of the so-called Sinai Province jihadist group, and working to improve the economy in both the impoverished Strip and the equally hard-put northern areas of the Sinai.

Meanwhile, Hamas recently carried out a wide sweep of arrests of Salafist activists in the Strip. While the move may have been intended to signal to Egypt the group’s willingness to battle IS-linked extremists, it was also intended to prevent an escalation with Israel over rocket fire by these fringe groups. According to sources in Gaza, between 30 and 40 activists have been arrested in recent weeks, including Hazem al Ashqar, a well-known Salafist activist who was nabbed by Hamas security forces some two weeks ago.

The arrests came after Hamas’s security apparatus received warnings that the Salafists were planning on firing rockets at Israel — launches that, experience shows, would have triggered an Israeli response aimed at Hamas targets, since Israel holds Hamas responsible for any rocket fire out of the Strip. After the warnings, Hamas forces deployed around possible launch sites and set up surprise roadblocks manned by Hamas personnel who had been given photos of Salafist suspects. Gaza’s ruling group also raided homes in Rafah, Gaza City and Deir al-Balah, with evident success, thus far at least.

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