Biden Doesn’t Need a New Middle East Policy
The Trump Administration Got the Region Right
At a rally for Hamas in Gaza in early February, a spokesman for the group, Sami Abu Zuhri, warned that the continued blockade on the area “will push Hamas to carry out actions which could be described as crazy.” When it comes to Hamas, such rhetoric is par for the course—except for one thing: the target of the group's threat was not Israel. Demonstrators were there to protest Egyptian policies.
Since the end of the summer 2014 Gaza war, Egypt has increased the political and economic pressure on Hamas. The moves are in line with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s crackdown on Islamist opposition at home. After all, Hamas originally grew out of the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Egyptian government claims that the broader group is part of a well-organized international conspiracy against Egypt and that destroying it is an existential necessity. Egypt’s Gaza policy must be viewed through this lens: to neutralize the Brotherhood at home, it aims to undermine the group’s potential allies elsewhere, including by breaking Hamas’s hold of Gaza.
But by treating the Gaza Strip as a national security threat and pushing both Hamas and the broader population into desperation, Sisi only increases the likelihood that Hamas will lash out. After all, last summer’s 50-day war between Hamas and Israel was a result of the Egyptian-Israeli pincer around Gaza. For Cairo, that war was the best possible outcome of its Gaza policy. Hamas went to war with Israel, not Egypt, and the Israel Defense Forces took responsibility for knocking the group down a peg (and bore the brunt of international criticism for worsening Gaza’s already dire humanitarian situation).
Since then, the Egyptian government has restricted outflows of goods and people through the Rafah crossing, once the main gateway through which Gaza residents could get out of the Strip. Along the Sinai-Gaza border, the Egyptian government has tried to cope with instability by keeping the border crossing mostly closed and by creating a new buffer zone, forcing residents out and destroying homes, buildings, and agricultural land within a kilometer of the border. Both actions increased Gaza’s isolation and further complicated any attempts at getting goods and people into or out of the Strip.
Gaza’s isolation is compounded by Egypt’s crackdown on tunnels beneath the Gaza border. Under longtime Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, Cairo had provided Gaza a hidden lifeline: hundreds of tunnels stretched under the Egypt-Gaza border, and Egyptian forces looked the other way as consumer goods and construction materials streamed across the Sinai Peninsula toward Gaza. Countertunnel operations began during the presidency of Mohamed Morsi following the massacre of 16 Egyptian soldiers in Rafah; but after Morsi was overthrown, the crackdowns expanded dramatically as violence in Sinai increased. Then, in March 2014, an Egyptian court banned Hamas’ political activities in Cairo. Recently, Egypt officially labeled Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al Qassam Brigades a “terrorist organization.”
In short, almost six months after the war, the squeeze on Gaza has not ended. Along the border with Egypt, the situation has become increasingly grim. In the Strip, the postwar reconstruction and recovery is proceeding at a glacial pace, while the humanitarian situation deteriorates by the day, with over 100,000 internally displaced people and with significant shortages in housing, sanitation, and water as well as basic infrastructure. Indeed, following the extensive war damage, the Gaza Strip urgently needs massive rebuilding and reconstruction. But it is lacking both materials and funds to do so. Meanwhile, rising societal tensions, prolonged strikes, and protests against UN Relief and Works Agency facilities in response to a suspension of aid are all indications of the souring of the general mood.
The problem is bigger than Egypt, of course. There is no denying that the situation in Gaza is derived from an unfortunate combination of the inability of Hamas and Palestinian Authority–dominating Fatah to work together, Israel’s slow pace of border openings, and the general reluctance of international donors to send aid. Still, Egypt is a key piece of the Gaza puzzle, and its current activities run against the political and economic openings to which Hamas and Israel agreed—under Egyptian auspices—at the end of their short 2012 skirmish. Indeed, the unwillingness of both Egypt and Israel to fulfill the 2012 cease-fire terms was one of the driving factors behind the 2014 war.
In addition to increasing the potential for renewed battle in the Strip, current policies toward Gaza are sowing discord within Hamas over the issues of reconciliation with Fatah and preserving the temporary cease-fire. In its foreign policy, Hamas is also debating the merits of a much-proclaimed (yet slowly implemented) rapprochement with Iran. Further adding to the confusion, Hamas is considering a potential tactical détente with Mohammed Dahlan—its former Fatah foe. The Islamist movement has apparently started permitting Dahlan supporters in Gaza to rally against the two groups’ mutual competitor: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. These ongoing debates are fostering internal Hamas tensions between those who support preserving the relationship with Fatah and the cold calm with Israel and those who are losing patience.
A divided Hamas may be seen as good news from Egypt’s perspective, but it could backfire. The rising internal frustration may further hinder any meaningful dialogue with Abbas and the Palestinian Authority—especially if Egypt has lost its role as mediator. In turn, the situation on the ground in Gaza could get even worse. What is more, heightened isolation and politico-economic pressure may lead Hamas toward yet another military escalation. Egyptian leaders are betting that if the Strip explodes again, it will burst out in Israel’s direction. However, with sour relations between the Sisi government and Hamas raising tensions on the Rafah border, Egypt shouldn’t be so certain.