Nir Elias / Courtesy Reuters Israeli armored personnel carriers drive outside the Gaza Strip, July 15, 2014.
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Expendable Egypt

Why Cairo Can't Broker a Ceasefire Between Israel and Hamas

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 problem. All together, these pressures arguably pushed Hamas to enter a 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.

In the end, the deal seems to have destabilized Hamas still further, at least in the short term. For years, Hamas had carefully balanced the need to project strength and credibility as the “Islamic resistance” with the desire to preserve full control over Gaza. In turn, Hamas has agreed to enforce cease-fires in Gaza when it was worried that an escalation might jeopardize its status as ruler, going as far as policing other armed factions. 

The unity deal shifted the balance, temporarily tilting Hamas toward resistance. It is overly simplistic, of course, to argue that the combination of Egyptian pressure and the unity deal pushed Hamas toward aggression against Israel; yet these factors did substantially change the group’s calculations, with Hamas increasingly less focused on controlling Gaza and progressively more interested in positioning itself on the national political scene. This might help explain why the group met Israel’s military operations in the West Bank with a rapid escalation.

ENTER EGYPT 

If the way the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas started is different from last time, so is the way it will end. In the course of the November 2012 confrontation between Israel and Hamas, Egypt took a direct and public role, pushing for a settlement. Morsi’s government was not an honest broker -- Morsi pulled Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv, sent his prime minister on a solidarity mission to Gaza, and threatened Israel in his rhetoric -- but it was a responsible one. As the United States pressured Israel, Egypt leveraged its political influence on Hamas. Together, they brought the conflict to a relatively swift end.

This time, given the far more adversarial relationship between Hamas and Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the political and military actions his government has taken against Hamas in Gaza, it seems unlikely that Cairo will be able to deliver a cease-fire. Indeed, on July 10, U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki acknowledged the lack of influence the current Egyptian leadership has in Gaza, saying, “there’s a difference between the relationship between the prior government to Hamas and the current government to Hamas.” 

Early Egyptian attempts to diffuse the hostilities between the parties reportedly failed, rebuffed by Hamas. On July 9, Egyptian foreign ministry spokesperson Badr Abdelatty tried to save face by arguing that Egypt was not negotiating an agreement but is simply attempting to end the violence on both sides. But the minimalist goals may have been the obstacle in the first place. Cairo initially sought a cease-fire deal akin to those of 2008 and 2009, a pure cessation of hostilities; but Hamas, less interested in following Egypt’s lead this time around, proved unwilling to give up the political gains it was supposed to make with the 2012 cease-fire

The 2012 Gaza war was an important test for Egypt’s last president. So, too, is the current conflict a test for Sisi. The Egyptian president has openly stated his desire to be directly involved in restoring calm. Egyptian intelligence and security leaders recognize the detrimental effect of tensions on Egypt’s borders. And so, Israel and the international community are watching to see if Sisi can be an effective partner. At an even deeper level, if Sisi can reach an agreement with Hamas, despite the vitriolic rhetoric directed at the Palestinian group from Cairo, it could also signal the new president’s potential to reconcile with domestic political opponents that have been on the receiving end of similar rhetoric.

Given its regional status and historical role in brokering these types of agreements, there has also been significant international pressure on Egypt to play a productive role in the latest round of the Hamas-Israel saga. Last night, Egyptian officials tried again, floating a proposal that, on paper, would be great for Israel and good for Hamas. The parameters of the deal included not only cessation of hostilities, but also a gradual “opening of the crossings,” a formula with some similarities to the 2012 deal. Israel accepted the deal this morning, whereas Hamas rejected it before even formally receiving the plan.

For Hamas, Egypt’s involvement must go further than reinstating a simple cease-fire based on “quiet-for-quiet” between the two sides, while leaving political developments for future discussions. The recent proposal is strikingly similar to the 2012 agreement, which began to fall apart soon after it became clear that the promised normalization of Gaza would not be forthcoming. Stability between Hamas and Israel will require a long-term political approach for Gaza. Hamas could reasonably conclude that, if the sympathetic Morsi government could not achieve such an outcome, there is little chance that the anti-Hamas Sisi government would accept such a paradigm shift. And, to date, it is indeed unclear that they would.

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