(Islamic Jihad’s Ramadan Shallah)
The growing hostility between Egypt and the Palestinian group Hamas, especially following an Egyptian court’s verdict that listed Hamas as a terrorist organization, has placed other Palestinian players in the limelight, particularly the Gaza-based Islamic Jihad movement and the exiled political leader and Gaza native, Mohammad Dahlan.
A few days after the court verdict, a delegation from Islamic Jihad, including the group’s Secretary-General, Ramadan Shallah, and his deputy, Ziyad Al-Nakhalah, arrived in Cairo to meet with the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Agency, Major General Khaled Fawzi. According to Egypt’s semi-official al-Ahram newspaper, Islamic Jihad has shown more flexibility in dealing with Cairo than Hamas has. Indeed, as I wrote last August, Islamic Jihad has managed to maintain a relatively good relationship with Egypt’s President Sisi.
Islamic Jihad played an important role in the Cairo mediations that ultimately led to the Gaza ceasefire agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian factions last year. Now the group is positioning itself as a credible broker between Hamas and Egypt. Jihad’s main goal is to prevent any further escalation in animosity between Egypt and Hamas and to open the Rafah crossing Egypt closed last October following a major terrorist attack in Sinai. Islamic Jihad’s mediations seem to have worked. Two interesting moves have followed the delegation’s visit to Cairo: First, Egypt has decided to open the Rafah border temporarily; second, Egypt’s Litigation Authority has appealed the earlier court ruling declaring Hamas a “terrorist” organization.
Another interesting player has re-emerged in the Palestinian arena ___ Mahmoud Dahlan, ex-Fatah leader, Gaza’s ex- security chief, and Yasser Arafat’s former advisor, who currently lives in exile in Abu-Dhabi. It is hard to sum up Dahlan in a few lines, but he is a shrewd and ambitious politician. He is everyone’s enemy, but is still willing to deal with everyone. In an interview with Newsweek last week, Dahlan made it clear he was using money and political connections to regain relevance in Gaza. As Hazem Balousha wrote in al-Monitor, Hamas and Dahlan need each other. Dahlan cannot work in Gaza without Hamas approval, while Hamas ___ or at least part of its leadership ___ is willing to accept Dahlan’s increasing “humanitarian” activities in Gaza.
Dahlan has claimed credit for the brief opening of the Egyptian-Rafah border crossing in January, saying the move came after he visited Egyptian officials. “The opening of the Rafah crossing to students, patients, Palestinians living abroad, and holders of foreign passport is only a first step in a series of measures adopted by the Egyptian leadership during my recent visit to Egypt,” he wrote on his Facebook page. In another interview last February with France 24, Dahlan said: “The opening of the Rafah border has nothing to do with Hamas. Anyone who can help relieve the misery of the Gazans should go to Egypt and negotiate; those who can’t [clearly referring to Hamas] should keep quiet.” In other words, Dahlan’s aim is to dissociate the Rafah crossing issue from broader inter-Palestinian differences. Smart idea, but unlikely to materialize on the ground.
Both Dahlan and Islamic Jihad can succeed in achieving a temporary understanding. However, their abilities to reach sustainable long-term solutions that can ease the pain of Gaza are limited by the three main players who can save Gaza: Hamas, the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and Egypt.
Groups affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) still operate under the watchful eye of Hamas in Gaza and in Sinai, which is a serious challenge for Egypt’s national security. Moreover, there are reports of Hamas drones allegedly entered the Egyptian airspace. Hamas possibly wants to test its drone in vulnerable Sinai, away from Israel’s anti-missile defense. The reason behind Hamas’s unwillingness to play an honest game with Egypt is twofold: On the one hand, it stems from Hamas’s ideological loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s regional camp that is hostile to the new regime in Egypt. On the other hand, Hamas hopes it can break the siege from the Israeli side. According to the Times of Israel, Hamas recently sent a series of messages to Israel indicating interest in a ceasefire lasting several years, in exchange for an end to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. However, Hamas has issued a denial, not of the proposal itself but that Hamas offered it or has approved it [yet]. Regardless of the details, the chance that such a proposal would succeed is very low. It is almost impossible for the Israeli Government to offer any concessions to Hamas during election time. Even after the election, Israel’s new leadership will have little incentive to compromise or change the current low-cost formula of “calm for calm.”
Another player is Palestinian President Abbas, who seems to be more preoccupied with his own survival, as he fears a plot is being hatched against him, according to Adnan Abu Amer. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been arresting Hamas activists and partisans of Mohammed Dahlan. For Abbas, securing the West Bank ____ not Gaza____ is his number one priority.
For its part, Egypt is playing for time, squeezing Hamas slowly by closing the border and creating a security buffer zone with Gaza. In spite of the closure, Egypt does open the border for short periods occasionally to give mediators access and to avoid international criticism.
To sum up, in addition to the main players – Egypt, Hamas, and President Abbas – the Gaza conundrum has two new players: Islamic Jihad and Dahlan. Each has it own agenda and focuses only on its own interests. It is hard to predict how all these maneuvers will work for the people of Gaza, but it seems almost certain that the siege of Gaza will not be eased soon.