In photo: Members of the Izz al-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, take part in a Dec. 14 rally in Gaza City marking Hamas’ 29th anniversary. A blockade by Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula has cut weapons supplies to the Palestinian group. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)
Hamas is in an even tighter spot than usual. Though the Palestinian party is accustomed to navigating restrictions on its activities, for the past month, traders and merchants in the northern Sinai Peninsula have reported interruptions to their usual trade and smuggling operations into Hamas-controlled Gaza. Members of the Islamic State’s Wilayat Sinai are behind this new blockade, an effort to punish Hamas for resisting greater coordination with the extremist group and for arresting Islamic State supporters in the Gaza Strip, apparently at Egypt’s behest.
The blockade has already hurt Hamas, according to local media and Stratfor sources in Gaza. Public markets are reportedly experiencing shortages, and the limited supply of weapons has driven up the price for Hamas. Party leaders have maintained that the blockade will not be much of a hindrance since Hamas can produce its own weapons. Continued production, however, depends on a steady supply of raw materials reaching Gaza.
Since its sizable electoral victory a decade ago, Hamas has maintained popularity among its constituents with promises to wrest Palestinian territory from Israeli control and form a Palestinian state. But to pursue its goals and maintain its political and military dominance in Gaza, Hamas needs supplies and allies. Now that tensions with Fatah, the other main Palestinian party, are rising – enough so that elections originally slated for this year have been postponed indefinitely – Hamas needs all the help it can get to survive. Despite its rocky history with the government in Cairo, and the price it is currently paying for accommodating Egypt’s wishes, Hamas cannot afford to risk its tenuous alliance with Egypt.
Egypt is vital to Hamas’ survival. Egypt’s brand of political Islam laid the groundwork for Hamas, which sprang from the country’s Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, and Cairo’s control of the Sinai Peninsula gives it significant influence over the movement of goods, both legal and illicit, into Gaza. But the two are hardly firm allies. In 2015, Cairo accused Hamas operatives of assisting with the assassination of Egyptian Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat and labeled the party a terrorist organization. Egypt also blames Hamas for flooding the Sinai Peninsula with militants.
A Shared Enemy
Despite their differences, Hamas and Cairo have found a mutual foe in the Islamic State and a common goal in defeating the extremist group. Their shared reputation for violence notwithstanding, Hamas’ driving ethos and objectives differ significantly from those of extremist organizations such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The party is compelled to push back against Salafist groups that threaten its dominance in Gaza. Furthermore, because Israel has made it clear that it will respond to and hold Hamas accountable for strikes emanating from Gaza, keeping Salafist and jihadist groups in check is a priority for Hamas. The Islamic State has been a particularly bothersome thorn in the political organization’s side since the group started escalating its show of force in the Sinai Peninsula in 2015. Yet Hamas has managed to restrict the Islamic State’s activity in Gaza. The extremist group, meanwhile, has seized control of expansive portions of the northern Sinai region and continues to bleed the Egyptian army at an alarming rate.
Hamas’ efforts to contain the Islamic State in Gaza and keep militants from crossing into the Sinai Peninsula have improved its relationship with Egypt recently, but their affiliation has limits. To preserve its peace agreement with Israel – another important ally in the fight against the Islamic State in the Sinai – Cairo must cooperate in obstructing smuggling operations into Gaza. Egypt will never agree to supply Hamas with weapons or the materials to make them, which means that its relationship with the Palestinian party will never go beyond the pragmatic partnership that their imperatives require. After suffering the consequences of cooperating with Egypt (the Islamic State blockade), Hamas may re-evaluate its relationship with Cairo.
Officials from both sides are working to find a mutually agreeable solution going forward.
In a Tight Spot
Seeing as Egypt cannot completely control the border between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, it can only push Hamas so far. Cairo can attempt to appease Hamas by expanding the hours of operation for the border crossing at Rafah, which it controls. In fact, over the past month, the crossing was open for an extraordinary number of days, allowing people and goods to pass between the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza. But Egypt cannot restore the restricted smuggling routes; the Islamic State controls the territory from which they originate. (Likewise, Egypt has no control over the maritime routes that Gazan fishermen use to supply Hamas with smuggled arms, pathways that the Israeli navy will be watching even more closely because of the Islamic State blockade.) In the meantime, extended hours at the Rafah crossing will not be enough to guarantee Hamas’ political survival.
As much as Hamas needs supplies and weapons to maintain its political and military clout, it also needs to stay in Egypt’s good graces. The party may have to reassess its priorities, depending on how much longer the blockade continues. After all, it stands to lose its military might with or without Egypt’s help – a reality that could lead Hamas to dial back its efforts against the Islamic State. Add to this the sympathy for the extremist group prevalent within its Gazan constituency, and it is clear that Hamas will have an especially thin line to walk in the coming months.