One aspect of the three-week-long conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas that has gotten curiously little play is the Egyptian angle, especially the Rafah Crossing, controlled by Egypt. The conflict was in a sense largely about this issue. Hamas’s war was intended to create a situation whereby the new regime in Cairo, headed by former general and now president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was to find itself increasingly embarrassed and forced by public opinion, both in Egypt and the wider region, to re-open Rafah as a commercial terminal.
Hamas took its strategy right out of the Arab regime playbook. For the last six decades, Arab leaders have frequently attacked Israel to achieve political goals that are completely unrelated to the Arab-Israeli conflict. When Saddam Hussein launched missiles on Israel during Operation Desert Storm, he wanted to divert attention from his aggression against Kuwait and sought to mobilize the Arab street behind the cause of liberating Jerusalem. His bid was doomed to fail, since very few Arabs were convinced that the road to Jerusalem goes through Kuwait. Throughout the spring and summer of 2006, Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah tried to lure Israel into war, as he eventually did in July of that year, to improve his position in Lebanese politics and reverse the gains of the Sunnis after the Cedar Revolution and the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005. He managed to emerge from the July 2006 war as the ultimate powerbroker in Beirut.
This most recent war between Israel and Hamas fits this pattern. Hamas exploited the tensions that followed the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers and the revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager, to intensify rocket attacks on Israeli cities, knowing that at a certain point Israel would have to respond.
After seven years of Hamas rule in the Gaza strip, the Islamist movement finds itself increasingly besieged in both economic and military terms. The siege started when an economic blockade was imposed by Israel in the aftermath of the June 2006 kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. After Hamas defeated Fatah and took over Gaza in June 2007, Cairo, under then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, could not acknowledge the takeover since it does not endorse Hamas's view of the conflict, or its armed struggle with Israel. As a result, Cairo considered the agreement signed in November 2005 to regulate the operation of the Rafah as null and void. Egypt stressed that the agreement was signed with the Palestinian Authority, which was no longer part of government in Gaza. Consequently, Rafah became a focal point of Hamas's strategy. From its perspective, reopening this commercial border crossing would be tantamount to Egypt’s official recognition of Hamas, an essential step toward replacing the P.A. as the representative of the Palestinian people.
Egypt also has security concerns regarding Rafah. Egyptian officials drew links between the creation of "Hamastan" in Gaza in the aftermath of the 2005 Israeli withdrawal and the ascendance of terrorism and insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. From the Egyptian viewpoint, the reopening of Rafah, with Hamas operatives on the other side, would effectively turn Sinai, a sparsely populated and huge area that amounts to 38,000 square miles, into a backyard of the densely populated Gaza strip where 1.7 million Palestinians live under Hamas's rule. For Egypt, it would be a strategic nightmare.
Hamas has blamed Egypt for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza , but this flies in the face of logic. Compared to the Israeli crossings through which Gaza gets most of its energy supplies and commercial goods, Rafah is not crucial for the wellbeing of Gazans. It is extremely important, though, for Hamas in both political and financial terms. The reopening of the Rafah crossing is not a humanitarian cause, it is a political one.
Hamas's rejection of the July 14th ceasefire initiative was in large part another attempt at reopening Rafah. Egypt remained firm then and seems to be so now as well. While it’s still too early to know what will come out of the ceasefire talks now being hosted in Cairo, the Arab press reports that Egypt will not change its position on Rafah
From Egypt’s perspective, it would be a grave mistake to link the reopening of Rafah to any possible ceasefire agreement. It would boost Hamas both politically and financially without much helping ordinary Gazans. Further, it would come at the expense of Fatah and the P.A., and would be detrimental to any future effort to re-launch peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel.
Gamal Abuel Hassan is an Egyptian writer and columnist.