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Full Circles: Hamas Goes to Cairo

Hamas supporters out on parade. Credit to openDemocracy on Creative Commons. Hamas supporters out on parade. Credit to openDemocracy on Creative Commons.

During the past week, a Hamas delegation paid an official visit to Egypt, which these days is news in and of itself. During its time in Cairo, the delegation also met with former Fatah warlord Muhammad Dahlan, which is even bigger news.

The Hamas delegation was led by Yahya Sinwar. A leader of Hamas’s Martyr Izz-al-Din Qassam Brigades – who served more than twenty years in Israel’s prisons until released in a 2011 exchange – Sinwar was recently elected to lead the movement in the occupied Gaza Strip, its main power base. Soon thereafter, a further round of internal elections choosing a successor to Hamas Politburo chief Khalid Mashal produced former Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya. Because Haniyya is a considerably weaker figure than either Mashal or losing candidate Musa Abu-Marzuq, Sinwar concurrently serves as the movement’s de facto overall leader.

Sinwar is known within the movement as a hardliner, and also for his conviction that Hamas should improve relations with Iran to balance its dependence on Qatar and Turkey. Like most of his peers, he is additionally anxious to normalise relations with Egypt, which since Sisi’s 2013 coup has launched an unprecedented vilification campaign against Hamas and thus has hermetically sealed the Gaza Strip’s only border with an Arab state.

Sinwar’s election, preceded by an unanticipated large increase in the number of eligible voters, did not sit well with Qatar. Among other factors, it threw a spanner in the works of the unveiling of the movement’s new political document at the Doha Sheraton Hotel on 1 May, in which Hamas formally embraced a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and defined itself as an organic component of the Palestinian national liberation movement, rather than of the Muslim Brotherhood which spawned it. According to some well-informed analysts, Doha gave PA President Mahmoud Abbas a wink and a nod to expand punitive measures against the Gaza Strip in order to remind Sinwar that relations with Tehran cannot substitute for patronage by Qatar, and that it expects him to embrace the movement’s updated policies and avoid confrontation with Israel.

The first of Abbas’s measures comprised substantial reductions in salaries paid to PA civil servants in the Gaza Strip. While such payments have been disbursed primarily to loyalist employees on condition that they no longer report for work, since Hamas’ 2007 seizure of power in the territory, there are very many of them and their aggregate income makes a substantial contribution to Gaza’s increasingly desperate economy. More recently, the Netanyahu government responded positively to a demand by Abbas to reduce the electricity supply to the Gaza Strip. (This is not an editorial error; the demand came from Abbas, not Netanyahu).

Abbas had been clamouring for this for some time, on the pretext that Hamas is withholding tax revenues from the PA with which to pay Israeli suppliers. At a less technical level, he hoped that adding further to the extraordinary privations visited upon the Gaza Strip by Israel, Egypt, the international community and the PA would cause its population to revolt and overthrow their increasingly unpopular Hamas rulers.

Previously, Netanyahu had deferred to Israel’s security establishment, which warned that reducing Gaza’s already intermittent electricity supply to just one or two hours a day is likely to cause a literal explosion. (In previous offensives, this same security establishment’s air force had taken out most of the Gaza Strip’s local electricity generation and consequently water treatment facilities). The most likely reason he overruled them this time has to do with the crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Israel wants to demonstrate its utility to its Arab partners in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have called upon Qatar to sever links with Hamas, and to persuade the hapless US president and his son-in-law, Middle East peace czar Jared Kushner, that one achieves peace in the Middle East through Arab-Israeli normalisation, not an end to occupation and Palestinian statehood.

 Rather than take the Israeli bait, Hamas turned to Egypt, onetime leader of the Arab world that is today a Saudi and Emirati vassal state. Cairo’s hostility to Hamas and fealty to its Gulf benefactors notwithstanding, it has little appetite for another Israeli-Palestinian conflagration that is certain to cause a further security deterioration in the restive Sinai Peninsula. Provisional agreements were reached to supply the Gaza Strip with Egyptian fuel and open the Rafah crossing more regularly, in exchange for which Hamas will ensure the Gaza Strip does not serve as a refuge for militant groups that have taken up arms in the adjoining Sinai.

Dahlan, who during the 1990s spearheaded the PA’s campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, was in 2006 personally selected by George W. Bush’s National Security Council Middle East director, the inveterate neoconservative Elliott Abrams, to depose Hamas after it resoundingly won PA parliamentary elections. Abrams did so against the advice of Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, the United States Security Coordinator charged with transforming the PA security forces into a reliable auxiliary force of the Israeli occupation and who considered Dahlan too discredited for the proposed task. Abrams prevailed, and in June 2007 Dahlan’s forces collapsed like a house of cards when Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip to put an end to their subterfuge. Dahlan was subsequently stripped of his powers, expelled from the Fatah movement, and left the West Bank under threat of a kangaroo court after a falling out with Abbas, until then his closest Palestinian collaborator.

In exile, Dahlan was adopted by Muhammad bin Zayid, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and effective ruler of the UAE, who appointed him national security advisor. Much to the consternation of Abbas, Dahlan also developed close relations with Egypt’s Sisi. Last year, Bin Zayid spearheaded the formation of an Arab Quartet to promote reconciliation between Abbas and Dahlan, and ensure the latter would succeed the former. They were adeptly outmanoeuvred by Abbas and the plan went nowhere.

As it happens, Dahlan and Sinwar are not only sworn political enemies but also childhood friends, having attended the same school in the Khan Yunis Refugee Camp. In their Cairo meetings they agreed to revive the PA Legislative Council, suspended by Abbas since 2007 but in which their combined delegates hold a large majority, and to implement various charitable projects in the Gaza Strip. By resuming relations, Hamas is able to offer Dahlan a window to re-enter Palestine and its politics, which are otherwise sealed off to him. Dahlan for his part can help oil the wheels of improved Hamas-Egyptian relations and of the Gaza Strip’s moribund economy. Two enemies have essentially come together to weaken their common rival, Abbas.

Since implementation of the Hamas-Dahlan understandings is reliant on Egyptian facilitation and Emirati largesse, this effectively puts Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Hamas in the same camp, even as Egypt and the UAE point to Qatar’s sponsorship of the Palestinian Islamists in their bill of indictment against Doha during the present GCC crisis. Full circles indeed.

 A revised version of this article was first published by London Review of Books.

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