The border separating the Gaza Strip from the Sinai Peninsula has in recent weeks become a Middle East hotspot as Egypt ratchets up its pressure on Hamas. Egypt is building an underground steel wall, reported to extend somewhere between 18 and 30 meters deep, to cut off the tunnels through which Gazans smuggle in everything from rockets to refrigerators. Cairo has also blocked the entry of convoys of international pro-Palestinian campaigners and Hamas sympathizers like British Parliament member George Galloway, bearing food and other aid.
In response, Palestinians have demonstrated violently on the Gazan side of the border; shots have been exchanged, and the unrest has spread to el-Arish, the Sinai’s biggest town.
On January 6, an Egyptian soldier was killed by a Hamas gunman at the border. That following Friday, imams in Cairo’s mosques were instructed to preach anti-Hamas sermons, and the Egyptian press is printing anti-Hamas opinion articles.
Prior to these events, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, had berated Hamas for failing to sign an Egyptian-brokered agreement to establish a new Palestinian unity government. And a few months earlier, Egypt essentially admitted failure in its mediation effort between Hamas and Israel regarding a prisoner exchange and turned the task over to a German diplomat.
Cairo’s governing elite has long harbored hostility toward Hamas; it’s a wonder that it took so long for it to be vented. For years, Cairo looked the other way while the tunnel smuggling into Gaza went on. But since Hamas took exclusive control of Gaza in a June 2007 coup, a series of factors have come together to force the Egyptian government to take an increasingly aggressive approach.
The most obvious challenge is the ideological appeal to Egyptian Islamists of the Hamas “emirate” adjacent to Egypt on the Mediterranean coast. At the domestic political level, the Mubarak regime has a huge problem with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is basically an offshoot. Mubarak clearly wants to separate Hamas and the Brotherhood to the greatest extent possible.
At the same time, the cease-fire arrangements that ended Israel’s controversial Operation Cast Lead included an international commitment to intercept arms being smuggled into Gaza. Iran and its Lebanese agent and ally, Hezbollah, have been key players in arming Hamas. But some of their militants and smuggled munitions have remained in Egypt, where Hezbollah agents have been caught spying and planning terror attacks. This has provided Cairo with a clear incentive to cooperate with the international effort to prevent smuggling.
At sea, the naval interception effort, spearheaded by the United States and Israel, has registered some success. On land, the subterranean wall Egypt is building, apparently with American know-how and even financing, is a major Egyptian contribution to this campaign.
Egypt’s tough new stance toward Hamas is enabled by Cairo’s current efforts to help restart peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas’s rival. This effort provides Cairo with political cover in the Arab world for its confrontational approach toward Hamas.
But Egyptian efforts against Hamas are also aimed at Israel. Egyptians are concerned when they hear about schemes advocated by some Israelis that would effectively make Gaza Egypt’s problem. Some in Israel have suggested that Gaza should be linked to northern Sinai as part of an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement or that the Israeli border crossings into Gaza should be closed as a means of forcing Egypt to take responsibility for meeting Gaza’s needs. While such ideas have never been embraced by the Israeli government, Egypt knows that they are raised prominently in Israeli political discourse. Closing the tunnels thus sends a message to Israel: Gaza is your baby. Indeed, if Cairo’s strategy toward the Gaza Strip can be summed up in a few words, it is that the Palestinian powder keg should be Israel’s problem, not Egypt’s.
Meanwhile, Hamas is being squeezed on all fronts, from the subterranean wall that Egypt is building to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent insistence that Israel will offer no further concessions toward a prisoner exchange. If Israel and the PLO succeed, with American and Egyptian help, in renewing peace negotiations, that too would squeeze Hamas politically.
In the coming months, the completion of Egypt’s wall could create major shortages in Gaza, not only of rockets to fire at Israel but of mundane goods and foodstuffs as well. This raises the question: Will Hamas bend, or will it lash out? A recent spate of rocket fire aimed at Israel could be a harbinger of things to come. Certainly, it’s hard to believe that Egypt’s wall will succeed — any more than Israel’s economic siege of the Gaza Strip has — in ending Hamas rule over Gaza.
Still, it took a lot of Hamas provocation for the Mubarak regime to strike back in this way. This suggests that it must feel genuinely threatened by radical Islam. As much consternation as the rise of Hamas in Gaza has prompted, even the specter of Islamist-fueled instability in Egypt is cause for much greater worry.
Yossi Alpher co-edits the bitterlemons.org family of Internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.