RAFAH, Palestinian Territories, Aug 9, 2012 (AFP) -
RAFAH, Palestinian Territories, Aug 9, 2012 (AFP) –
An attack by Sinai militants that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers has brought a swift end to the honeymoon between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Egypt’s new Islamist president,analysts say.
Following the election of Mohamed Morsi in June, relations with Hamas had appeared to get off to a good start, with the Egyptian leader taking steps in the past few weeks to ease the restrictions on the Egypt-Gaza border.
But everything changed on Sunday night, when gunmen killed 16 Egyptian guards in Sinai, with sources in Cairo suggesting the attackers had come from
Although Hamas swiftly condemned the bloodshed and moved to close down the network of tunnels running under the border, its relations with Cairo were “were seriously damaged and will need a lot of time to recover,” says political analyst Mukhaimer Abu Saada.
The “honeymoon phase” between Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Morsi “didn’t last long” because of “popular and military pressure on Morsi” which is likely to cause him to backtrack on pledges to extend the opening hours at the Rafah border crossing, according to Abu Saada.
But the effect “will not last long if proven that no one in Gaza was involved,” says Abu Saada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City.
Deputy foreign minister Ghazi Hamad has said Hamas is holding “intensive” discussions with Cairo to “contain the repercussions of the terror attack” and to avoid a “humanitarian crisis” likely to be brought on by the closure of the tunnels, which provide a life line to the Gaza Strip.
But experts believe Egypt will destroy the tunnels, which are causing it a major security headache.
Political scientist Walid al-Mudalal says the Sinai attack “gives reasonable grounds to Egyptian authorities to open Rafah crossing,” to avoid the dangers of unregulated passage through tunnels.
But Abu Saada disagrees, since although the tunnels do create a problem for Egypt, closing them completely “requires an understanding with the Hamas
Mudalal believes Egypt may allow several tunnels designated for delivering fuel and building materials until the development of a “free trade zone” on
the border, which would rule out the need for tunnels.
“I think both Gaza and Egypt are ready for this solution.”
Ihab al-Ghussein from Gaza’s interior ministry insists Hamas “does not need the tunnels, and will close them if the suffocating blockade is lifted.”
But analysts say Egypt is facing international pressure, including from Israel, to keep tight control over the Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only gateway to
the world not controlled by Israel.
“Israel is turning people against Gaza and trying to turn Egyptian public opinion against it to prevent a reopening of the crossing or ease the blockade, to neutralise Egypt in the event of an Israeli attack in the strip,” says Mustafa al-Sawaf, a political analyst and former editor-in-chief of
Hamas-run Palestine newspaper.
Yet even so, relations “will soon be back to normal, and this incident might increase security cooperation and coordination between Gaza and Egypt,” Sawaf says.
Mudalal agrees. The attack, he says “will lead to a better security coordination” and will formalise cooperation between Gaza and Egypt, “including at the border and in confronting extremist groups.”
Hamas has been engaged in a crackdown on Salafist groups, which accuse the Gaza rulers of weakness in the face of Israel and criticise them for not imposing Islamic Sharia laws in the territory, and Ghussein says their number has “significantly diminished” over the past 18 months.
But Abu Saada believes Egypt has bigger fish than Gaza to fry. “Egypt’s priority is restoring security and stability in Sinai before anything else, and lifting the blockade and improving the situation in Gaza is secondary now.”
To him, closing the crossing will be disastrous and will force Gaza into an explosive humanitarian crisis.
The way out of this crisis is through “Palestinian reconciliation and reconstructing the Palestinian house.” Mudalal says the relationship between Hamas and Morsi’s administration is “not transient because Hamas and the Brotherhood share both ideology and
“The fallout from the attack,” he says, “is only a storm in a teacup.”
He believes the opening of the Rafah border will “start gradually for humanitarian cases and will be observed, because closing it will be a return to the collective punishment of the Israeli occupation, which is something post-revolution Egypt will not accept.”
Omar Shaaban, an economist who heads PALThink, a Gaza-based research institute, does not think the closure of Rafah will last for long.
“Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has a huge role to play in preventing another blockade on Gaza because it is a blockade against the people and not against Hamas,” he said.