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As Egypt squeezes Gaza, Hamas looks increasingly cornered

The deterioration in Gaza since Egypt cracked down on smuggling tunnels has left Hamas weakened – and looking to mend fences with Palestinian rival Fatah.

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A tunnel worker ascends on a rope inside a smuggling tunnel dug beneath the Gaza-Egypt border in the southern Gaza Strip last October. As Hamas finds itself increasingly squeezed between Israel and Egypt, which has been closing off smuggling tunnels in its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, frustration with the increasingly poor conditions in Gaza could boil over.

Ahmed Zakot/Reuters/File

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Gazan Adnan Abu Dalal, a father of seven, spent years dependent on aid after losing his job in Israel when the second intifada broke out.

He finally found work with a local construction company, but he was left jobless again this summer when Egypt cracked down on the smuggling tunnels along Gaza’s southern border. The tunnels secured nearly 70 percent of Gazans' commercial needs, including construction materials, as well as cheap Egyptian fuel that powered everything from generators to wastewater treatment plants.

While life here has been hard for years, there has been a distinct deterioration in recent months. Electricity is down to eight hours a day or less; prices have spiked; the streets have been flooded with sewage on multiple occasions; and unemployment has shot up to 43 percent, up from 23 percent in the first half of 2013.

“I believe pet animals abroad have better lives than ours. I don't care if Hamas or Fatah rule, what I need is a bright future for my children,” says Mr. Abu Dalal, who says he is embarrassed that they have to wear last year’s school uniforms because he couldn’t afford new ones. “The government is careless and the other Arab and foreign countries are doing nothing to end our suffering.”

The deterioration comes as Hamas finds itself increasingly squeezed between Israel and Egypt, both of which have been hit hard by terrorist groups operating in the Sinai peninsula and in recent months have improved military cooperation to tackle the mutual threat. As both countries crack down on terrorist links between Hamas-run Gaza and Sinai, frustration with the increasingly poor conditions in this crowded coastal territory could boil over, presenting an additional threat both to Hamas and its neighbors.

“It’s probably the Egyptians to blame, but Israel cannot bury its head in the sand because it does have consequences for Israel as well – there may be spillover from growing frustration of Palestinians,” says leading Israeli defense reporter Amos Harel.

Over the past week, there has been an escalation of rocket fire between Gaza and Israel, with a Katyusha attack on the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon last week prompting an Israeli strike on Islamic Jihad operative Ahmad Saad. Hamas is reportedly deploying troops to the Israel-Gaza border to prevent rocket attacks by other factions in the Strip, but that may not be enough to cork the bottled-up frustration. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Hamas today that Israel would respond forcefully if the spate of rocket attacks did not cease. 

“Will [the situation] blow up?” asks Harel. “I think we already see the signs that this is where it’s heading. It’s no longer a drizzle of one rocket per day.”

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It’s not just causing tensions with Israel, though. It is also putting significant pressure on the Hamas government. Seven years after violently ousting its secular Fatah rivals from the Gaza Strip, Hamas is finding itself in a much weaker position in reconciliation talks.

“Anger with Hamas is boiling, which is basically causing Hamas to rethink its current policy toward Palestinians,” says Mukhaimer Abu Saada, professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University.

Pushed toward reconciliation

Last week, Hamas released seven Fatah activists from prison in an effort, leaders said, to create a better atmosphere for reconciliation. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh also announced that his government would allow Fatah members to return to Gaza. 

"Such steps are good and welcomed, but we have an agreement that we both accepted and signed, so I invite Hamas to start implementing them," says Faisal Abu Shalha, a Fatah legislator in Gaza.

Those agreements include recognizing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as interim prime minister of a unity government that would prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections within 90 days of its formation.

"In the past, Hamas had the strength to maneuver and imply its conditions to reach a reconciliation deal,” says Prof. Abu Saada. “But now Hamas will have to accept any proposal and give concessions that the movement considered red lines in the past."

The timing of Hamas's outreach may have something to do with the US-led peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, says Talal Okal, a political analyst in Gaza. If a peace agreement is reached when Hamas and Fatah are cooperating, Hamas is more likely to share the political gains and gain international acceptance. It could also partake in the windfall that donors have promised the Palestinian Authority if it signs a peace agreement.

Hamas may also feel less popular pressure to campaign for one of its founding principles: the liberation of Palestine from Israeli occupation, which many Gazans have stopped talking about. Their conversations now are all about the shortages; shortages of food, gas, electricity, freedom of movement, and human dignity – demonstrating that it’s not just economic troubles that weigh on Gazans’ minds.

“Money has never been a problem for me, but what would money do for me at war times?” asks Khaled, a young accountant with a BMW and a villa who is thinking of taking a job in Qatar, even though the salary is much lower. “What would money do when I can't go out of Gaza whenever I need to? You may buy a car, an apartment or modern clothes with money, but you can't buy freedom with money.”

Changing regional dynamic

In 2011, Hamas abandoned its longtime allies Syria and Hezbollah, thinking that Egypt’s ascendant Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies such as Turkey and Qatar would provide badly needed aid and help bolster its legitimacy.

But after the Egyptian coup this summer, Cairo has openly said it is cracking down not only on the Brotherhood, but Hamas as well. In addition to destroying tunnels, Egypt has also severely limited Gazans’ ability to exit at Rafah, Gaza's main access to the outside world. 

Israel responded by easing restrictions on people and goods moving through the two crossings it controls, Erez and Kerem Shalom, though with minimal impact. In August, for example, Israel allowed 24 percent more entries through Erez, but that compensated for only 6.5 percent of the Rafah decrease, according to Gisha, an Israeli NGO focusing on Palestinian freedom of movement. 

Many Gazans still blame Israel for what they see as a policy of collective punishment carried out in concert with Egypt.

"The people are the ones who really suffer. They have been penalized for doing nothing. By doing this, Israel is not only harming Hamas, but also the common people who are being impoverished by the blockade,” says Jamal Khodaty, an independent legislator in Gaza. “The closure has caused social, economic, psychological, and ecology disasters to Gaza. The international should stop speaking about the blockade and start working to lift it, actions speak louder than words." 


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