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Difficult times ahead for lonely Hamas?

January 24, 2014 at 8:57 am

Under a military blockade for six years, the Gaza Strip may now be facing further isolation. Whilst Israel’s restrictive policies have secluded the enclave, the shattering of Morsi’s power under the feet of Egypt’s masses has signalled the departure of another ally for an increasingly lonely Hamas.

When mass protests toppled Mubarak from the seat he had clung onto for thirty five years and then voted for Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, the people of Gaza also flooded the streets, honking horns in celebration of not only the emancipation of the Egyptians, but also for the newly-elected president. Hamas, as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, hoped that the ideological and political connection between the two would create a necessary ally for besieged Gaza.

In May 2011, Morsi opened the Rafah border crossing on a regular basis for all Gazans carrying Palestinian passports and identity cards, easing a four year long blockade. During Israel’s November offensive on Gaza he was instrumental in brokering a truce. His first major test on the international stage was scrutinised by the major powers and he seemed to play a strategic role, treading the fine line between the interests of Hamas, the Camp David Israel-Egypt peace treaty and the goodwill of the US government, which provides $1.3 billion military aid to Cairo annually.

Although it is felt by many that the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power did not alter the reality faced by Gazan Palestinians as had been hoped, when anti-Morsi protestors took to Cairo’s streets disenchanted by the fruits of their revolution, the future of Hamas also hung in the balance. The departure of the Muslim Brotherhood signals the loss of a key ally for Gaza’s leadership.

Choosing Sides

Since Hamas announced publically that it was no longer behind Assad in the Syrian conflict and condemned Hezbollah’s involvement in support of the regime, a stance that united the group with Morsi, Hamas lost two key allies in the region. On Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, Hamas official Salah Bardawil said to Ma’an, “It is unacceptable to take a bypass path to Palestine that goes through Syrian cities slaughtering their children and women. This is an illogical justification.” Reports claim that as a result, Iran, a long standing financial backer, may be reducing its support for Hamas. Iran still stands by Assad and was not pleased by the Hamas decision. While Morsi cut ties with Assad in defiance of the bloodshed, Egypt’s new foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, has reportedly already said that the interim government will “re-examine” the severed diplomatic ties with Syria.

Following the move of the Hamas political bureau from Damascus to Qatar, the transfer of power in the small sheikhdom from Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to his son, Prince Tamim bin Hamad, places further uncertainty over where Hamas can turn. The new Qatari ruler has stated his commitment to maintaining Doha’s previous relations, but the recent change of stance from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood to congratulating the new interim leader makes it possible that Hamas will be asked to leave, as Qatar seeks to cut its Brotherhood ties. It may remind Hamas of Jordan, when the change of leadership in 1999 from father to son led to their ousting from the country. This week Jordan’s King Abdullah II became the first head of state to visit Egypt since the ousting of Morsi.

The interim government seems unlikely to look favourably on Hamas. Hemmed in by Israel, Egypt and the sea, Gaza’s remaining connection to the outside world thus lies in the intricate network of tunnels to Egypt which the military-led regime has been destroying systematically. The Palestinian Economy Minister in Gaza, Alaa al-Rafati, told Al-Monitor that the Gaza Strip has lost around $225 million during the past month due to the halt of imports, dealing a severe economic blow to the territory.

The possibility that Egyptian public opinion has tied the fate of Morsi with Hamas will not work in Hamas’s favour. Outside the hotel where Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Political Bureau Chief Khaled Meshaal met on June 17th, demonstrators chanted anti-Hamas and Morsi slogans. One sign read, “Hamas is a knife in the Heart of Egypt”, and reports have emerged of media incitement against Palestinians as a whole. On 7th July nine human rights organisations issued a statement condemning “hate speech” from local media outlets against Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Egypt, describing it as “irresponsible”. Accusations that Hamas is responsible for the problems in Sinai, including the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers are fuelling the feelings.

An investigation has already been launched questioning Morsi and members of his Muslim Brotherhood over the prison break that led to their escape during the 2011 uprising. In a court hearing on Sunday, Judge Khaled Mahgoub named both Hamas and Hezbollah as accomplices. According to the Independent, Mahgoub said Ibrahim Haggag and Sayyed Ayad had been involved “with those foreign elements who violated the sovereignty of the Egyptian state and its territory in addition to spread chaos throughout the republic. This led to the release of thousands of prisoners who are a danger to society.” These developments are a sign of testing relations between the new regime in Egypt and Hamas.

Domestic Relations and Israel

Aside from the regional fragmentation affecting Hamas, the crisis in Egypt may also have an effect on the domestic politics of Palestine, widening the gap between Hamas and Fatah. Egypt’s leadership has often been seen as nurturing potential reconciliation between the factions since their split in 2007. The two have subtly taken sides although statements have been released expressing their non-interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. In a letter congratulating Adly Mansour on his new appointment as interim president in Egypt, his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas praised the role played by the Egyptian armed forces headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in “preserving Egypt’s security and preventing it from sliding to an unknown fate, valuing the role by the Egyptian people who rose up to save Egypt and set a future plan for it in these critical moments.” This was reported by the official PA news agency Wafa. Hamas has been silent on the matter but released a statement on July 1 accusing Fatah of making false accusations. While for Hamas the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood is a loss, for Fatah it could be a win situation if it capitalises on potential diplomatic ties.

With the ousting of Morsi countries are picking sides and in the process Gaza may be rendered defenceless, especially in the face of Israel and the fragmentation of the power axis in the resistance movement. Some analysts predict that the fall of Hamas-friendly Morsi, Hamas’s increasing isolation, Egypt’s pre-occupation with its internal affairs and the international focus on Cairo have created the perfect time for another Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip. Reports have also arisen suggesting that Israel may be buoying up the strength of Hamas and the potential conflict between the group and Egypt’s military in the media. The Israeli military’s official news site Ynet featured an article claiming, “On Saturday, shortly after Morsi was toppled, dozens of radical terror activists affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood movement left the Gaza Strip and headed for Sinai in a bid to fight the Egyptian army.” This reflects a trend in the Israeli media; it may be the forerunner of darker times to come.

With Qatar, Jordan and Fatah seeming to gravitate clearly towards support for the new regime, and Hamas split from Hezbollah and Iran over Syria, recent events have changed the political terrain surrounding the Islamic Resistance Movement and it will be a testing time as the group attempts to navigate the new stormier waters.

Jessica Purkiss is a freelance journalist based in the West Bank.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.