A Hamas delegation recently paid an official visit to Egypt, which these days is news in and of itself. While in Cairo, the delegation also met with the former Fatah warlord Muhammad Dahlan, which is even bigger news.
The Hamas delegation was led by Yahya Sinwar. A leader of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, who served more than twenty years in Israeli jails until released in a prisoner exchange in 2011, Sinwar was elected four months ago to lead the movement in the occupied Gaza Strip, its main power base. In May, an election to choose a successor to the politburo chief Khalid Mashal was won by the former Palestinian Authority prime minister Ismail Haniya, a comparatively weak figure. Sinwar is the movement’s de facto overall leader.
He’s known within Hamas as a hardliner, and also for a conviction that the movement should improve relations with Iran to balance its dependence on Qatar and Turkey. Like most of his peers he is also anxious to normalise relations with Egypt, which since Sisi’s coup in 2013 has run an unprecedented vilification campaign against Hamas and sealed Gaza’s only border with an Arab state.
Sinwar’s election, preceded by a large, unexpected increase in the number of eligible voters, did not sit well with Qatar. It threw a spanner in the works of the unveiling of Hamas’s new political document at the Doha Sheraton Hotel on 1 May, in which the movement formally embraced a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and defined itself as an organic component of the Palestinian national liberation movement rather than of the Muslim Brotherhood which spawned it. Doha may have given the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, a wink and a nod to expand punitive measures against the Gaza Strip, to remind Sinwar that relations with Tehran are no substitute for Qatar’s patronage, and that Doha expects him to embrace the new policies and avoid confrontation with Israel.
The first of Abbas’s measures was to reduce the salaries paid to PA civil servants in Gaza. Since Hamas seized power in the territory in 2007, the Fatah-led PA has mostly been paying its employees not to go to work, but there are very many of them and their aggregate income makes a substantial contribution to Gaza’s increasingly desperate economy. More recently, the Netanyahu government agreed to Abbas’s demand to reduce Gaza’s electricity supply.
Abbas had been clamouring for this for some time, on the pretext that Hamas is withholding tax revenues which the PA would use to pay Israeli suppliers. At a less technical level, he hoped that adding further to the extraordinary privations visited on Gaza by Israel, Egypt, the international community and the PA would cause its population to revolt and overthrow their increasingly unpopular Hamas rulers.
Previously, Netanyahu had deferred to Israel’s security establishment, which warned that reducing Gaza’s already intermittent electricity supply to just one or two hours a day is likely to cause a literal explosion. (This is the same security establishment whose air force took out most of Gaza’s local electricity generation.) The reason Netanyahu overruled them this time probably has to do with the crisis in the Gulf Co-operation Council. Israel wants both to demonstrate its usefulness to its partners in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have called on Qatar to sever links with Hamas, and to persuade the hapless US president and his son-in-law, the Middle East peace czar, Jared Kushner, that peace in the Middle East is achieved through Arab-Israeli normalisation, not by ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state.
Rather than take the Israeli bait, Hamas turned to Egypt, a onetime leader of the Arab world that is now a Saudi and Emirati vassal state. Despite its hostility to Hamas and fealty to its Gulf benefactors, Cairo has little appetite for another Israeli-Palestinian conflagration that would only worsen the security situation in the restive Sinai Peninsula. Provisional agreements were reached to supply Gaza with Egyptian fuel and open the Rafah crossing more regularly. In exchange, Hamas will ensure that Gaza isn’t a refuge for militant groups that have taken up arms in Sinai.
Dahlan spearheaded the PA’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza in the 1990s. In 2006, he was selected by George W. Bush’s National Security Council Middle East director, the inveterate neoconservative Elliott Abrams, to depose Hamas after it resoundingly won PA parliamentary elections. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, the United States security co-ordinator charged with transforming the PA security forces into a reliable auxiliary force of the Israeli occupation, opposed the appointment but Abrams prevailed. In June 2007 Dahlan’s forces collapsed when Hamas seized power in Gaza to put an end to their subterfuge. Several years later, Dahlan was stripped of his powers and expelled from Fatah. He left the West Bank under the threat of prosecution after falling out with Abbas, until then his closest Palestinian collaborator.
In exile, Dahlan was adopted by Muhammad bin Zayid, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and effective ruler of the UAE, who appointed him national security adviser. Much to Abbas’s consternation, Dahlan also developed close relations with Sisi. Last year, Bin Zayid led an effort to reconcile Abbas and Dahlan, and ensure the latter would succeed the former. He was outmanoeuvred by Abbas and the plan went nowhere.
Dahlan and Sinwar are not only sworn political enemies but also childhood friends. The went to school together in the Khan Yunis Refugee Camp. In their Cairo meetings, they agreed to revive the PA Legislative Council, suspended by Abbas since 2007 but in which their combined delegates hold a large majority, and to implement various charitable projects in the Gaza Strip. Hamas offers Dahlan a way back into Palestine and its politics, which are otherwise sealed off to him. Dahlan can help oil the wheels both of improved Hamas-Egyptian relations and of Gaza’s moribund economy. Two enemies have come together to weaken their common rival, Abbas.
Implementing the Hamas-Dahlan understandings depends on Egyptian help and Emirati largesse. This effectively puts Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Hamas in the same camp, even as Egypt and the UAE point to Doha’s sponsorship of the Palestinian Islamists as a reason for their blockade of Qatar.