The similarities between this month’s hostilities between Hamas and Israel and those during their last major confrontation, in November 2012, are striking. Hamas and other Palestinian groups fire rockets deep into Israel, and the Iron Dome defense system knocks the projectiles out of the sky. Israel launches aerial strikes on densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip, and militants there shoot rockets back at Israeli civilians.
Yet one thing has changed: the relationship between Hamas and Egypt. In the fall of 2012, Hamas was able to count on the political support of the Egyptian government of President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader. The rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt earlier that year had simultaneously provided Hamas with a new regional ally and redefined relations between the group and Egypt, moving from the mutual deep-seated suspicion and antagonism of the Mubarak years to a relationship built on shared political ideals and respect.
After Morsi was ousted in July 2013, the new Egyptian government launched a crackdown on the Brotherhood at home and assumed an especially harsh posture toward Hamas, calling the group, which was once a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza, a threat to national security. Most significantly, Egypt’s repeated restrictions on the flows of goods and people to and from Gaza and its campaign to crack down on underground tunnels between the strip and Sinai have deeply hurt Hamas’s finances. In March 2014, moreover, Egypt’s judiciary banned Hamas from conducting any political activities in the country.
Unsurprisingly, Hamas felt the loss of Egypt’s political friendship very deeply. Now that it was regionally isolated, internal divisions arose over how to confront the new challenges, with discussions about rekindling relations with Iran as well as about the group’s balance between governance and resistance. Hamas’s troubles also led competing armed factions to challenge the group’s monopoly of force in Gaza, for example by engaging in uncoordinated rocket attacks against Israel. The group also faced a significant cash-flow unity deal with the Fatah movement that controls the West Bank–based Palestinian Authority. In exchange for relinquishing some control of Gaza to Fatah, it seems, Hamas was hoping to receive badly needed financial help from Fatah so that it could pay the salaries of the public employees on its payroll.
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