Seeking to Secure Sinai, Egypt Mends Fences With Hamas

CAIRO/GAZA (Reuters) -

After years of strained relations, Egypt is moving closer to Hamas in Gaza, offering concessions on trade and free movement in return for moves to secure the border against Islamic State terrorists who have killed hundreds of Egyptian policemen and soldiers in northern Sinai.

Egypt has been at odds with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, since a crackdown by Cairo on the armed group’s Islamist allies. Egypt closed the border, opening it only rarely.

But in recent weeks Egypt has eased restrictions, allowing in trucks laden with food and other supplies.

The relaxation follows high-level Hamas visits to Cairo, which wants to restore its role as a regional powerbroker and crush Islamic State followers in the Sinai Peninsula.

It builds on what Egyptian and Palestinian sources say are efforts by Hamas to prevent the movement of terrorists in and out of Sinai, where they have killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police since general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013.

Egyptian and Palestinian officials say the changes could signal a new era of closer cooperation after years of tension.

“We want cooperation in controlling the borders and tunnels, the handover of perpetrators of armed attacks and a boycott of the Muslim Brotherhood. They want the crossing to be opened and more trade,” one senior Egyptian security source said.

“This has actually begun, but in a partial way. We hope it will continue.”

Egypt has given Hamas a list of about 85 fugitives, who it says are implicated in attacks and wants extradited, the Egyptian security source said. Hamas denied links with some of them and sources in the group said extraditions were unlikely though it might make its own inquiries.

Hamas has, however, let Egypt know that it has no interest in stoking unrest in an Arab neighbor that has mediated several truces with Israel and among rival Palestinian factions.

“If we compare it with a year ago, the situation or the relationship is better but it is not yet what is needed,” Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official, told Reuters.

The blossoming ties have been advanced by intense diplomacy, culminating last month in a visit by Ismail Haniyah, a deputy leader of Hamas, to meet Egyptian intelligence officials.

A series of conferences on Palestinian affairs have also taken place in Egypt in recent months, attended by figures from Palestinian factions.

Organizers said the conferences were part of efforts to restore Egypt’s regional role following the chaos of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts.

“The situation now is returning to normal,” said Elazb al-Tayeb Taher, writer on Arab affairs at the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, which hosted one of the conferences in November.

“Egyptian intelligence is restoring its relationship with Hamas in accordance with certain guidelines, chief amongst them being that Hamas does not become a major gateway for threats from Gaza targeting Egypt’s national security.”

But the ultimate aim is more ambitious: a free trade area and an industrial zone on the Egyptian side to facilitate commerce, allow Gazans to travel abroad, and create jobs for those who might otherwise join the militants.

“We’ve gotten to a point now with Hamas where we’re working on a framework on which to build for the coming period, and this will be contingent upon controlling the borders and the crossing will be open routinely,” said Tareq Fahmy, of the state-linked National Center for Middle East Studies, which co-organized two Palestinian conferences last year.