Egypt May be Opening New Chapter with Hamas

(Cairo) Egypt has made yet another positive gesture toward Hamas, the movement that rules the Palestinian Gaza Strip, by releasing four members of its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, almost three years after they were kidnapped in Sinai.

The four Qassam Brigades members were travelling to Cairo from Gaza, together with 50 other Gaza residents, when their bus was stopped by masked militants.The militants then drove the four men away, even as the bus was guarded by Egyptian police. This was why Hamas accused Egyptian authorities of being behind the kidnap of the four men, even as Egypt denied these charges.

On February 28, however, Egypt released the four men, along with four other Palestinians who were in Egyptian custody. The release of these eight Palestinians came shortly after of a visit to Cairo by the head of the Hamas Politburo Ismail Haniyeh. Haniyeh described the release of the four men as an expression of “deep relations” between his movement and Egypt.

Nonetheless, the release of the four Qassam Brigades’ members sticks out as an inconsistent development in relations between Cairo and the Gaza-ruling movement. These relations have worsened dramatically in the past five years, against the background of the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt after an army-backed popular uprising in mid-2013.

Hamas, an political party which is ideologically aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, objected to Morsi’s downfall. The knock on effect sparked a series of protests in Gaza, during which Hamas officials denounced the Egyptian army for backing the people’s movement against the Islamist president. Cairo, meanwhile, has accused Hamas of playing a role in backing a branch of the Islamic State (IS) in Sinai. The Palestinian movement also accused Egypt of contributing to the blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel since 2007 by continually sealing off the Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only gateway into the outside world on the border with Sinai.

Nevertheless, the release of the four Qassam Brigades’ members attests to new understandings between Hamas and Cairo, analysts said. “A new chapter will likely start in relations between the two sides,” said Palestinian thinker Abdel Qadir Yassin.

Egypt, which has started an all-out campaign in Sinai to totally eradicate the IS branch in the territory, wants to secure cooperation with Hamas in this regard. Cairo is badly in need of cooperation with Hamas in order to finishing off the IS branch in Sinai in the light of Egyptian intelligence which suggests that IS militants have been receivinge an endless supply of arms and militants from Gaza, where the Salafist Jihadists sympathize with the radical group which has been fighting the Egyptian army since 2014.

IS militants have also reportedly managed to sneak into Gaza to hide and for medical treatment, by making their way through a network of smuggling tunnels between the Palestinian coastal enclave and Sinai. Egypt has destroyed a huge number of these tunnels in the past few years. The tunnel demolition is part of the Egyptian military campaign against IS, which also includes the total closure of all entry and exit points to and from North Sinai where the IS militants are mostly concentrated.

Yassin has stated that cooperation from Hamas in the past two years has helped the Egyptian army capture the radical militants in a small area of North Sinai. “This cooperation helped the Egyptian army tighten the noose around the militants,” he said.

Egypt also wants Hamas to move forward along the road to reconciliation with its rival faction, Fatah, which rules the West Bank, in preparation for resuming peace talks with Israel. Cairo had been the scene of several rounds of talks between the two rival Palestinian factions, but these talks have produced few tangible results. Still the underlying significance of the release of the four Qassam Brigades’ members is that Egypt will stop using the stick and start using the carrots in relations with Hamas in its bid to secure further cooperation from the Palestinian movement. This is why on the 4th of March Haniyeh said that relations with Egypt had started assuming a “strategic” nature. He added at a press briefing in Gaza that Egyptian authorities had promised to lead a new effort to commit Israel to agreeing to new understandings with Hamas.