Gazans suffer significant oppression under Hamas, while Israel suffers frequent rocket attacks from the Strip. Could transferring control of Gaza back to Egypt solve both problems?
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005, implementing his disengagement plan. The Gaza Strip now belongs entirely to Palestinian Arabs. Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections, but their government soon collapsed. Hamas asserted a direct iron-fisted rule in Gaza (Hamastan). The Fattah Party of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas controls the West Bank (Judah and Samaria).
Hamas is a Sunni Islamist movement that is among the members of the international Muslim Brotherhood. It has also made itself a strange bedfellow of the Shiite Islamist regime in Iran, becoming a satellite for Iran’s international ambitions.
Recent developments in Egypt, and one major development in the Gaza Strip, make a possible transfer to Egypt not only possible, but also desirable for most of the parties involved.
Egypt has seen the rise of a new military government led by former General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. His government overcame the Muslim Brotherhood and its president, Muhammad Morsi, last year amid significant protests. The new government claims that Hamas worked in support of the Brotherhood and has been working to destabilize Egypt since the transfer of power.
Within Gaza, a new Tamarod movement, named for the Egyptian protest movement that sought the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government, formed in 2013 to drive Hamas from power. Hamas responded by showing off its brute strength by suppressing resistance. This brief Real News video from last fall discusses the Tamarod movement and Hamas’ counter moves.
Transfer to Egypt
What would it look like if Israel transferred responsibility for governing the Gaza Strip to Egypt? Under other circumstances, it would seem a nightmare scenario. Israel has rarely benefited from handing over its security interests to foreign states. The question now is whether Egypt has more to lose from a radicalized Gaza Strip than Israel. Would not Egypt want to weaken Hamas and open the region to greater freedom?
Since it took power in support of protestors, Egypt’s new military government has cracked down on the Gaza Strip. It has destroyed several tunnels that had, until recently, been used to smuggle weapons into the Strip. Over the last few months, the tunnels also provided weaponry to the Sinai in an attempt to destabilize the new Egyptian government. These tunnels were not destroyed out of any special love of Israel or in service of Israel’s interests, but because they threatened Egypt’s national security.
El-Sisi, recently elected president, is committed to the security and stability in Egypt. I believe his government can be trusted to pursue its own best interests, which at the moment happen to align very neatly with Israel’s. Egypt also had control of the Strip from 1949 to 1967, so there is some historical precedent.
A Unity Government
PA President Mahmoud Abbas has sworn in a unity government between his ruling Fattah Party and Hamas. New elections are to be held for the PA Presidency and legislature. While this unity government has come together, it is far from a harmonious collaboration. Hamas does not want the PA government and its police forces to return to Gaza. The police forces’ return, however, represents Gazans’ only hope of ending Hamas oppression without foreign intervention. Elections will determine if the unity government lasts. If Fattah wins the elections with a clear mandate, Hamas is still going to assert itself in Gaza, if Hamas wins it will likely mean more violence.
According to the CIA Fact Book, the Gaza Strip currently has approximately 1.8 million residents, about half the total Palestinian population (estimated at 3.9 million). Conditions in the Gaza Strip are miserable, largely due to Hamas and its military activities. Since Israel’s withdrawal, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the free practice of religion have ceased to exist in the territory. Israel also maintained the roads, built hospitals, and upgraded the water infrastructure. Hamas has also proven largely incompetent in making government policy in the Strip.
After the Gaza Withdrawal of 2005, came the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and the subsequent rocket barrage in 2006. These led Israel to insert military forces (the Israeli Defense Forces – IDF) into the Gaza Strip to quell the violence. After thousands more rockets, the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead in 2009, which substantially weakened Hamas and reduced the military threat to Israel. Gazans, however, continue to live under Hamas’ brutal rule.
The formation of the Gaza Tamarod movement shows at least some public opposition to Hamas, but Israel can do nothing except stand by and watch. Any intervention by Israel would galvanize support for Hamas and destroy any hope of success for its opponents. Egypt, on the other hand, is a Muslim country that is not subject to the same perceptions. Egypt can enter the Strip under the flag of liberation, security, and peace.
Egypt very much wants total defeat for its enemies, and El-Sisi’s government counts Hamas among those enemies. Since Hamas is also among Israel’s enemies, there is at least the possibility of alliance and cooperation. Even if Israel does not completely transfer responsibility for the Gaza Strip, Egypt might be allowed to take a greater role in security matters there. Such a shift would also draw international attention away from Israel’s involvement toward discussion of Egypt’s intervention; a win-win scenario.
None of this would prevent the Gaza Strip from one day joining a Palestinian State, in fact, the weakening or dismemberment of Hamas would only make that prospect the more likely. If no such state came about, then at some future date, Egypt could consider annexing the Strip permanently. That possibility might serve as motivation for the Palestinian Authority to take negotiations more seriously.
Several rounds of negotiations aimed at the two-state solution have failed, why not find ways to encourage the Palestinians back to the negotiating table? If Israel has the chance to strike Hamas with a serious blow, why not seize it?