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Behind the Egypt-Hamas Flare-up

Shlomo Brom is a retired brigadier general and a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv. This piece originally appeared on BitterLemons.

In the course of the past two weeks, the relationship between Egypt and the Hamas government in Gaza has deteriorated and their latent conflict has become public. The concrete reason for this state of affairs is two decisions taken by the Egyptian government.

The first was a decision to build a new metal wall that penetrates deep into the ground along the Gaza border with the purpose of preventing smuggling from Sinai into the Gaza Strip both above and below ground, through tunnels. The second decision was first to delay and then to prevent the entrance into Gaza of the better part of a large convoy of trucks and a delegation organized by western pro-Hamas organizations to break the so-called "siege" of Gaza. These two decisions led to verbal recriminations between the two sides as well as to violent clashes at El Arish in Sinai and along Egypt's border with Gaza in which an Egyptian soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper.

Ever since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, Egypt has had difficulty formulating a coherent policy to deal with the resultant dangers. Cairo's basic attitude toward Hamas as an offshoot and a branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is very wary. The Egyptian Brethren present the greatest challenge to the Egyptian regime, hence the existence of a territory ruled by a sister movement on Egypt's border is a problem: it can serve as a model and a base of operations in Egypt itself, and it threatens Egyptian sovereignty--as manifested in January 2008 by the breaching of an Israeli-built Gaza-Sinai border wall and the inflow of many thousands of Gazans to the Egyptian side.

The close relationship that has developed between Hamas and Iran/Hizballah has only strengthened the perception of the threat posed by Hamas, especially after the uncovering in Egypt of Hizbollah cells that were part of a network smuggling weapons to Gaza. Evidence that these cells were planning attacks inside Egypt brought home to the Egyptians that their worst nightmare was coming true: Gaza was becoming an internal Egyptian security problem.

These recent developments prompted a change in the way Egypt dealt with the problem. Until recently, Egypt was looking for a political solution. It invested heavily in mediation attempts aimed at achieving a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The idea was to for the PA to resume control over Gaza in exchange for Hamas having a share in the PA government and its institutions. As time passed and reconciliation attempts failed, the Egyptians narrowed down their compromise suggestions to the bare minimum needed to enable some sort of modus vivendi between Hamas and the PA in Gaza, but Hamas rejected even these proposals.

Egypt did not hesitate to apply pressure on Hamas throughout this mediation process. It deployed a carrot and stick policy in which the border regime between Egypt and Gaza was an important tool--opening and closing the Rafah crossing and fine-tuning policy toward smuggling operations in accordance with developments in negotiations. Now the Egyptians appear to have concluded that reconciliation efforts are not going to bear fruit any time soon and they have to adopt sterner policies vis-a-vis the Hamas government in Gaza.

The first expression of this newly assertive policy is tough counter-smuggling measures. Egypt understands, particularly after the war in Gaza a year ago, that the smuggling of weapons into Gaza is both highly destabilizing and a source of growing Hamas self-confidence. Stopping the smuggling will weaken Hamas, decrease its self- confidence and make it more dependent on Egypt. It will also render it much more difficult for Iran and Hizballah to aid Hamas. In recent months, Egyptian security forces were unusually active in uncovering and destroying smuggling tunnels. The new metal wall will add to the effectiveness of their operation.

The other steps include sanctions against Hamas in the form of strong restrictions on movement through the Rafah crossing and on the presence in Egypt of persons considered close to Hamas. This even includes the expulsion of relatives of Hamas figures studying in Egypt.

Hamas has raised the level of its anti-Egyptian rhetoric but faces a dilemma. Its leaders fully understand just how dependent they are on Egypt as long as the alternative conduits to Gaza are controlled by Israel. And of course Egypt is an important political power in the Arab world. Hence Hamas must exercise caution not to burn its bridges with Egypt.

In parallel, in Egypt there is some concern that its tough new steps could be used by Islamists to attack and weaken the regime. But regime control appears to be solid enough to deal with the challenge.

The main risk is that a weakened Hamas that feels under pressure from all sides will turn to violence as the only option left. Recent exchanges of fire with Israel may indicate that this is a serious option. Violence would not be an easy decision insofar as Hamas was deterred by its poor showing in the last war. But deterrence, in principle, is less effective against a desperate enemy.

Finally, it remains to be seen how persistent the Egyptians can be with their new policies-- especially when the Arab-Israel peace process is frozen and Cairo's actions can be interpreted as collaborating with the "Israeli enemy". This factor will probably continue to hinder cooperation between Israel and Egypt in dealing with Hamas in Gaza.

By Shlomo Brom:
Reprinted with permission from BitterLemons.