Egypt and Hamas’ warming relations raise eyebrows years after coup fallout

Ties have grown closer despite Cairo accusing the group of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood

A member of the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement is greeted by supporters before at the movement's leader Ismail Haniyeh's office in the Gaza Strip on February 28, 2019.  The Hamas leader announced in a press release today the release of four detainees from his group held in Egypt since August 2015.
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Returning recently from a 24-day trip to Egypt, Hamas’s political chief, Ismail Haniyeh, said the Palestinian movement’s ties with Cairo were “stable and deep”.

Mr Haniyeh told Palestinian media on March 3 that the two sides had “turned the page of the past” and that Hamas now has “a strong and strategic relationship with Egypt”.

Relations between Hamas and Egypt hit a low after President Abdel Fattah El Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, accusing Hamas of being a co-conspirator against the security and the stability of the Egyptian people, and tightening a blockade on the Gaza Strip.

That same year an Egyptian court banned Hamas and its armed wing – the Qassam Brigades – and accused the movement of supporting violent actions carried out in Egypt.

But since the summer of 2017, relations between Hamas and Egypt started to improve, and these warming ties have started to raise eyebrows among observers.

Cairo suddenly expressed an openness to reconcile with Hamas, and relations started to improve after the Palestinian movement agreed to a buffer zone between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula where ISIS has established an affiliate.

A day after Mr Haniyeh returned to Gaza from Egypt, Cairo released four Hamas militants who were abducted in August 2015 by gunmen who ambushed a bus that was leaving Gaza for Cairo International Airport. For years Egypt denied having knowledge of their whereabouts.

Egyptian intelligence operatives were widely believed to have abducted the Hamas members at a time when Egypt’s relationship with the group was critically damaged.

But Mr Haniyeh said that the decision to release the four prisoners “reflects the deep relations” between Hamas and Egypt.

Ever since Hamas ousted Fatah-led security forces from the Gaza Strip in 2007, Egypt closed its border with Gaza. Cairo said it would reopen the frontier only upon the return of the Palestinian Authority to assume control in Gaza.

But the relationship between Mr Sisi’s Egypt and Hamas has warmed in the past 18 months to a level that no one thought possible given the animosity that the Egyptian regime had for the group and retains towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

It was the Egyptian leadership that ended Hamas’s isolation and recognised the group’s sovereignty in the Gaza Strip. It also dealt with it as a legitimate Palestinian government to the dismay of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Since May last year, Egypt has opened the border crossing with Gaza, Hamas delegations visiting Egypt have become a recurring event and Egyptian security and intelligence officials continue to assume the role of mediator between Hamas and Israel after weeks of protest marches that have turned violent.

But many Palestinian analysts believe that Egypt’s sudden change of attitude towards Gaza and Hamas is the product of American instructions and US President Donald Trump’s plans to try to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"It's clear that Egypt did so on the instructions of officials from the Trump administration who want to propose humanitarian and economic solutions as their plan to solve the conflict instead of the 'traditional' two-state formula," Gaza-based political analyst Mohammed Zaqout told The National.

“Sisi’s Egypt, which didn’t make an effort to conceal its keenness to appease Trump, and despite its enmity towards the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, still did it and mended the relationship with Hamas.”

A report in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper last year claimed that Trump aides Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt discussed with Egyptian officials the possibility of establishing a trade zone in northern Sinai near Gaza and a number of commercial and industrial projects there as part of their broader peace plan.

Palestinian Authority officials have repeatedly issued warnings about potential plans to reduce any political settlement to mere humanitarian and economic measures, ignoring the Palestinians’ demand for national self-determination.

They are also concerned that Mr Trump’s plan might exploit Gaza’s needs to pass a deal that would be detrimental to Palestinians’ right to live in a sovereign, independent state on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.

When Hamas favoured contact with Israel over intra-Palestinian reconciliation talks in recent months, Palestinian Authority officials accused the movement of being a tool for Mr Trump’s long touted but as yet unrevealed “deal of the century”.

But senior Hamas official Ahmed Youssef said the group denied those claims.

“Hamas has repeatedly voiced its rejection of the Trump deal, and the Egyptian decision to open the border with Gaza and strengthen ties with Hamas has to do with the growing trust between Hamas and Egypt and the commitment Hamas has shown to Egypt’s security,” he said.

However, Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk admitted that there are “indirect contacts” between Hamas and the Trump administration, making it the first US government to have established a connection with the organisation.

Washington under Mr Trump has reversed the policy of the previous US administrations, which emphasised the need to empower Mr Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, and maintain the isolation of Hamas.

The Palestinian Authority also fears that economic projects for the Gaza Strip might be intended to maintain the separation between the territory and the West Bank, which has long been one of Israel’s goals, one meant to fragment Palestinian lands and undermine their status as a nation.