Scapegoating Hamas for Sinai problems

Gaza is not the problem, and the buffer zone is not the solution to Sinai violence.

Egypt military sinai
The concern used to be that the Sinai was a source of weapons and fighters for Gaza, writes Nashashibi [Reuters]

Two days after large-scale, coordinated militant attacks in the Sinai killed at least 30 Egyptian soldiers and police officers last week, a Cairo court listed Hamas’ armed wing as a terrorist group. Given that the Palestinian faction has served as a convenient scapegoat in Egypt since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, the timing of the court ruling is unlikely to be coincidental.

Rather, it seems in line with blaming Hamas and the Gaza Strip, which it governs, for violence in the Sinai Peninsula. Indeed, Cairo’s response to militant attacks that killed 33 security personnel in the peninsula in October was to build a buffer zone along the border with Gaza.

Never mind that these and other attacks have been claimed by Egyptian group Sinai Province (formerly Ansar Beit al-Maqdis), which pledged allegiance last year to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

War of words

Never mind, too, that Hamas vehemently denies military involvement in Egypt, that a war of words has been brewing between the Palestinian faction and ISIL, that Hamas has fundamental ideological and strategic differences with jihadists, and that there is speculation that the latter may be starting to pose a threat to its rule in Gaza.

Inside Story – Has president Sisi’s approach in Sinai failed?

It is far more convenient, though totally baseless, for Cairo to blame Sinai violence – as well as a host of other domestic issues – on Hamas rather than acknowledge that it is a home-grown problem. This allows the government to garner public support against foreign interference.

It also enables it to deflect attention away from its own policy failures, its broken security promises, and its culpability in encouraging domestic militancy, particularly with regard to widespread human rights abuses, and in the case of the Sinai, the huge toll that the buffer zone is having on its residents. Sinai militants have cited such abuses as justification for their actions.

Last week’s attacks are proof that Gaza is not the problem, and that the zone is not the solution. The concern used to be that the Sinai was a source of weapons and fighters for Gaza, but since Morsi’s ouster we are told that actually the Palestinian territory is supplying the Sinai militants. This defies evidence and logic. The least practical source for Sinai militants is Gaza, which has been under strict blockade by its only two neighbours, Egypt and Israel, for several years.

Warnings from all sides

Successive Egyptian administrations have stressed the effectiveness of their crackdowns on smuggling tunnels. According to officials and smugglers on both sides of the border, by last summer some 95 percent of tunnels were no longer operational. The remainder are reportedly small, unstable, and have to supply Gaza’s 1.8 million impoverished people with basic necessities – hardly conducive to reliable military supplies.

Instead of encouraging foreign conspiracy theories, Cairo would do well to recognise that Sinai unrest is largely rooted in long-running grievances, including demands for greater autonomy, state repression, and economic, political and social marginalisation.

Why would Gaza militants, who find it hard enough getting weapons themselves, hand them over when they face Israeli aggression? Their stocks are already depleted by Israel’s most recent invasion, and there are warnings from all sides that another war is likely.

In this context, opening up another front, against Egypt’s army, makes no sense as this would result in Hamas’ increased isolation. The group also has to enforce the ceasefire with Israel and govern Gaza – it needs military strength to do both.

Other supply routes are far more plentiful, lucrative and accessible. Egypt has long and porous borders with war-torn Libya and Sudan, and extensive Mediterranean and Red Sea coastlines. At just 13km, Gaza represents a minuscule 0.2 percent of the total of length of Egypt’s borders.

Egypt is surrounded by countries that are awash with weapons. Abundant supply and choice makes them considerably cheaper than getting them from Gaza. Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran are among the countries cited as sources and supply routes for Sinai militants.

The continued expansion of the Sinai buffer zone, entailing the displacement of thousands of civilians and the destruction of the entire city of Rafah, is certain to bolster militant ranks. In December, it was announced that the zone’s width would be increased 10-fold from its original 500m.

Misdiagnosing the problem

“The scale of the forced evictions has been astonishing,” Amnesty International said in November. The human rights group accused the authorities of “completely ignoring key safeguards required under international law including consultation with residents, adequate prior notice, sufficient compensation for losses and granting alternative housing to those who cannot provide for themselves, rendering the evictions unlawful”.

Egypt’s increasingly strict blockade of Gaza is also causing resentment among Sinai residents, who have economic and social ties to the Palestinian territory. This has considerably restricted trade revenues among an already impoverished population.

Instead of encouraging foreign conspiracy theories, Cairo would do well to recognise that the Sinai unrest is largely rooted in long-running grievances, including demands for greater autonomy, state repression, and economic, political, and social marginalisation.

As such, a purely military approach will only aggravate matters – a mistake made not just by the current government – which on Saturday established a new, Sinai-focused counterterrorism unit – but by its predecessors.

Simplistically and inaccurately viewing the situation as one of radical religious militancy stoked by Hamas in Gaza, rather than long-standing local grievances against the state, gravely misdiagnoses the problem. The public will eventually see, sadly with deadly effect, that the Sinai buffer zone has not enhanced security. What will be the government’s excuse when it can no longer scapegoat Hamas and Gaza?

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.