Militants in northern Sinai killed at least 26 Egyptian solders in a suicide car-bomb attack on two military checkpoints near Rafah on July 7 (al-Jazeera, July 8). The attack, which was claimed by Islamic State (IS), was one of the deadliest on the military in years, but unconfirmed reports that some of the attackers were former members of Hamas have given the attack an added political dimension.
According to IS supporters posting on social media, at least three of the participants in the attack were former members of the al-Qassam Brigades (Asharq al-Awsat, July 9). There has been no official confirmation of that. Though under President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt has regularly pressured Hamas to hand over fighters in Gaza with links to IS’ Sinai branch and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas may now be more forthcoming on this point as the Saudi-led political rift with Qatar accelerates a thaw in the group’s frosty relations with al-Sisi and gives Egypt even greater leverage over the Palestinian group.
Egypt — along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain — severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in June, accusing Doha of funding terrorism. Egypt particularly objects to Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and takes issue with Qatari broadcaster al-Jazeera. Adding fuel to the fire, Dhahi Khalfan, Dubai’s often-vocal former police chief who has needled Qatar on several occasions, accused Doha of “funding, supporting and inciting” the Rafah attack (Twitter, July 8; Egypt Today, July 9).
All of this puts Hamas, which was quick to condemn the attack, in a tricky position (el-Balad, July 7). The Palestinian group has been a major beneficiary of the humanitarian aid poured into the Gaza Strip by Qatar. For years, Qatar has hosted a number of its political leadership in Doha. With Qatar coming under pressure — Doha is already beginning to frame its support efforts as an act of compassion for the people of Gaza, rather than an endorsement of Hamas — the Palestinian group has been attempting to smooth things over with Egypt.
It has begun work on a buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt, an Egyptian demand that is expected to force a number of families from their homes (Haaretz, June 30). Likewise, it is now also softening its position toward exiled Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan. Once hated by Hamas, there has been speculation over the last month that he could now return to Gaza (Maan, June 26). In that respect, he is aided by the election in February of Yahya Sinwar as leader of Hamas (al-Jazeera, February 18). The two have known each other since they were teenagers.
That would be a double win for Egypt. Dahlan is an adviser to Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, and is on good terms with Egypt’s al-Sisi. Having him in play would erode Qatar’s position and further strengthen Egypt’s hand in its dealings with Hamas.