By Yoni Ben Menachem
The Egyptian government is concerned that the events of the Hamas “Return March” in Gaza may spill over into Egyptian territory. Hamas has rejected an Egyptian proposal for Hamas to calm tensions in Gaza in exchange for Egypt opening the Rafah Crossing on a regular basis. Egypt is anxious about the developments of Hamas’s “Return” campaign in the Gaza Strip and its effects on the situation in Egypt.
Only two weeks have gone by since the start of the Hamas campaign, and there is still another full month ahead of notable dates to commemorate. Each anniversary provides the Hamas campaign with the trigger for explosive acts of violence and Palestinian casualties. Against such a backdrop, the Arab summit opens on April 15 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The Al-Khaleej online website reported on April 9 that Egypt planned to open the Rafah crossing to traffic in both directions for a four-day period as a gesture towards the Hamas leadership and to reduce tensions in Gaza following the “Return March.”
What is causing Egyptian anxiety?
The Egyptian government still remembers very well what happened when tens of thousands of Gaza residents broke through the border fence and infiltrated into Egyptian territory ten years ago.
In January 2008, armed Hamas activists broke through the border fence between Gaza and Egypt, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza flowed into Sinai during that week to obtain food and other basic products.
The Egyptian police were compelled to use water cannons and clubs against the Palestinians to restrain the masses charging the border. During these events, around 40 Egyptian security officers were injured.
That 2008 attack on the Egyptian fence was a Hamas initiative designed to ease the Israeli embargo on Gaza and compel Egypt to open the Rafiah crossing on a regular basis.
In the end, Egypt was forced to come to terms with the mass infiltration from Gaza into its territory. Once the Gazans had spent several days stocking up on food, gas, and other basic products, Egypt reached an understanding with Hamas regarding the return of the Gazans to the Strip.
If the Hamas Return campaign on the border with Israel fails and does not lead to an easing of Israel’s closure of the Gaza Strip, this scenario may be repeated. For this reason, Egypt is anxious and is trying to find a solution before the situation in the Gaza Strip gets out of control because of the current severe humanitarian crisis.
Egypt would find it difficult to put a stop to another such mass event, and it is reasonable to assume that in such a situation the Egyptian political echelon would order the country’s army not to open fire against the Gazan crowds that would enter the Sinai area.
Today, there is a buffer zone between Egypt and Gaza that Egypt established in November 2017 when it cleared an area 1,500 meters wide and 10 kilometers long on the Egyptian side to prevent terrorists and weapons being brought over from the Gaza Strip into the Sinai area. On the Gaza side, Hamas leader Yihya Sinwar also established a buffer to prove his intention to block the smuggling from Gaza of weaponry and Salafist terrorists.
The Egyptian army has been waging a major military campaign in northern Sinai against the Sinai branch of ISIS. It is concerned that a breach of the border fence between Gaza and Sinai will enable terrorists from the Gaza Salafist organizations and weaponry to infiltrate into Sinai to assist ISIS in the area.
The suffering of the residents of the Gaza Strip caused by the ongoing closure and the sealing of the Rafiah crossing on most days of the year could stir up the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition movement in Egypt, resulting in a threat against the stability of the government.
Hamas is playing a double game. It may once again breach the border fence with Egypt to secure the opening of the Rafiah crossing and compel the Egyptian government to reach an agreement regarding the permanent reopening of the crossing as a means of easing the closure.
If the Palestinian crowds breach the border fence with Egypt, this could also affect Israel. Terrorists from Sinai could reach the Gaza Strip with large quantities of game-changing weaponry, such as advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, and carry out terror attacks against Israel from there.
Egypt’s initiative to reach an understanding with Hamas
It is believed that last week’s visit of new Egyptian intelligence chief Gen. Abbas Kamal to the Palestinian Authority, his meeting with P.A. head Mahmoud Abbas, and his meeting with Israel Security Agency head Nadav Argaman were to find a solution that would reduce the wave of violence and tension in Gaza.
The Al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper reported on April 9 that an Israeli security delegation visited Egypt and discussed with Egyptian intelligence ways to limit the Return marches.
The members of the Israeli delegation warned that continued protests at the border with Gaza could lead to a new war.
Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia fear a social explosion in Gaza, and Palestinian rage will also be directed toward the Egyptian border over the next few weeks. This will make things complicated for Egypt with regard to the Arab and international audience, especially after President Sisi’s recent victory and new presidential term following the elections in March 2018.
Al-Khaleej online reported on April 7 that Egypt is acting with Saudi Arabia to persuade and pressure Hamas to halt the Return campaign before it leads to dangerous developments that could spiral out of control.
According to the report, the Return march confuses the Arab regimes, which have given up dealing with the Palestinian problem and are trying to improve the atmosphere before the U.S. “deal of the century” is announced.
Egypt has invited a delegation from the Hamas leadership to talks in Cairo. However, the leaders of Hamas declined the invitation due to recent developments in Gaza. For this reason, the Egyptian intelligence chief was sent to Ramallah and Tel Aviv for talks.
The main leverage that Egypt has at its disposal to put pressure on Hamas is the Rafiah crossing, which is the only exit from Gaza to the Arab world. Egypt has offered to open the crossing on a regular basis in exchange for Hamas calming the territory.
However, according to a report on April 7 on the Al-Quds channel, which identifies with Hamas, Hamas rejected the Egyptian offer. It feels that it has gained unprecedented achievements from the Return campaign and it needs to squeeze the lemon until the last drop.
The Hamas leadership is sure that the movement has been strengthened by the march campaign. This will also put it in a stronger position vis-à-vis the Egyptian government. Therefore, it is not in any hurry to reach any understandings with Egypt. From Hamas’ point of view, it is still too early, and it will wait until the right moment when it can harvest the full crop of political fruits from Egypt.