It’s no secret that Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist faction that controls Gaza, has long considered exchanging its underground smuggling tunnels to Egypt for a policy of above-board trade. What has only recently begun to register is that Hamas may be contemplating a bolder political gambit still: Cutting its financial ties to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, in preparations for declaring full independence on behalf of Gaza.
Al-Hayat first reported the story on July 22. The London-based Arabic daily noted that Hamas was poised to sever its limited economic ties with Israel, open a free trade zone with Egypt at the Rafah border crossing, and declare itself liberated. Before the story could gain traction, however, senior Hamas leaders Mahmoud al-Zahhar and Salah al-Bardawil quickly disavowed the reports.
But senior Gazan officials quietly acknowledged to me in recent meetings that Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood splinter group, and President Mohamed Morsi’s new Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, are actively discussing this controversial idea. Hamas has approached the question patiently since conquering the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Now, after a half decade of economic hardship resulting from the Gaza embargo, the Hamas government appears to believe that 1.7 million Gazans would welcome the free flow of goods above nearly all else.
The international community may be another story. Hamas is still a designated terrorist group in the United States and elsewhere. In hopes of avoiding sanctions or other roadblocks, unaffiliated businessmen in Gaza are now working to create an independent corporation to manage the Rafah crossing. According to a Gaza entrepreneur who wishes to remain anonymous, it is slated to be called the “Palestine Company for Free Trade Zone Area.”
But even if Hamas can satisfy the concerns of the international community, other Arabs might stand opposed. Egyptians are particularly ambivalent. In April, Palestine Press quoted an Egyptian official who opposed the move because it would “cause great harm to the Palestinian cause.” It was the Egyptians, after all, who had labored to bring about the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement of May 2011. Those who have benefited from the smuggling tunnels will also be unhappy. If the Sinai Bedouin population is cut off from the lucrative black market that brings everything from Iranian rockets to groceries into the Gaza Strip, the recent violence in the Sinai could be only a small sign of things to come.
Egypt is also deeply reluctant to let Israel off the hook. As long as Israel controls Gaza’s borders, airspace and coastal waters, it is seen as the occupying power. If Hamas declares independence and opens a free border with Egypt, one could argue that Israel would no longer be saddled with responsibility for the Gazans, and managing the flow of goods that enter and exit the territory—a task that drains Israel of resources and manpower. “Why would Egypt want to help out Israel in this way?” asked one Egyptian academic.
But for Cairo, there are upsides. For one, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood enjoys a long-standing relationship with the Gaza Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas’ antecedent). Integrating Hamas with other Middle Eastern economies through Rafah would unquestionably boost the movement’s legitimacy. Moreover, it would finally ease the hardships Gazans have endured under the Israeli trade embargo.
Perhaps more importantly, by taking Hamas’ tunnel economy and bringing it out into the light of day, the Egyptian government stands to cash in. Through taxes or fees, Rafah could generate new revenues at a time when a moribund economy has officials tightening their belts. Some entrepreneurs are even looking to build businesses in Sinai, just to make it easier to ship their goods to the Gaza border.
But this would be no consolation to the Palestinian Authority. The Ramallah-based government in the West Bank is hardly thrilled at the prospect of a breakaway Hamas republic. PA President Mahmoud Abbas would be identified as the Palestinian leader who allowed Hamas to tear Gaza away from the already diminished territories Palestinians claim for their national project. It is no great secret that the two factions have failed to agree on terms of reconciliation since the Palestinian civil war of 2007, but this could mark the end of an attempt to paper over their differences.
Moreover, as it stands now, both Palestinian governments depend largely on foreign aid and trade with Israel for their economic survival. If Gaza breaks off, the PA would be seen as clinging to the Israeli economy, while Hamas joins the Arab Spring economies. Not exactly the best way to show frustrated West Bankers that their leaders are working for the “liberation of Palestine,” especially amidst the recent unrest over economic conditions.
However, all would not be lost for Abbas and the PA if Gaza were to secede. Hamas has saddled the PA with a number of expenses. The financially strapped PA spends nearly 50 percent of its annual budget on Gaza, even though it no longer controls the territory. Additionally, the PA has continued to pay salaries for some 70,000 PA workers in Gaza, even as Hamas created a new public sector comprised of Hamas loyalists. The PA has kept the funds flowing to maintain its claim on Gaza, while also ensuring that their people don’t go hungry. A breakaway Gaza might allow the PA to wash its hands of this redundant obligation.
Another possible plus is that the PA can disavow Hamas when it resurrects its attempt to achieve non-state member status at the United Nations. Until now, the Palestinian leaders have been dogged by questions surrounding the impact of the territorial split and the potential for Hamas’ terrorist ideology to undermine the UN initiative.
Finally, there is Israel. Some Israelis would lament the breakaway on immediate financial grounds; the parties that stand to lose the most in the short-term are those who run “chop shops” that send stolen cars through tunnels from Gaza to Egypt, where they are disassembled and sold for parts. Other Israelis may harbor legitimate longer-term fears—that Egypt would allow Hamas to obtain an even deadlier arsenal. But the Gaza breakaway would also likely prompt a collective sigh of relief in Israel. When the Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005, they hoped to disengage completely. Here’s their chance. Israelis will still undoubtedly face the threat of rocket fire and terrorist infiltration, but they’re already familiar with these challenges.
In the meantime, Morsi and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh are reportedly still far from an agreement. According to political scientist Mkhaimar Abusada of the al-Azhar University in Gaza, the two parties may require anywhere from six months to another two years to iron out a deal whereby “Hamas goes its own way,” given all the legal issues and potential opposition involved.
In the meantime, Haniyeh is bending over backwards to demonstrate that Hamas can keep the border with Egypt terror-free. The Egyptians remember when, in 2008, Hamas breached their border barriers with explosives, creating a chaotic scene in which hundreds of thousands of Gazans flooded into Egypt over almost two weeks. Interestingly, shortly after that incident, Egypt’s parliament began to examine “a proposal to set up a free trade zone at [the] Rafah crossing along the Egypt-Gaza border,” but the deal apparently went nowhere.
Clearly, Hamas has revived the idea, but the security concerns haven’t gone away. After several acts of violence against the Egyptian military involving Palestinian assailants in Sinai, Hamas has undertaken security efforts on the border to build confidence that it can be a trustworthy partner. The recent delegation of 11 Egyptians to Gaza can be viewed as latest installment in a series of discussions on the security challenges that need to be resolved before an economic union can materialize.
Will the Rafah deal happen? Some Gazans seem to think so. They’re further encouraged by press reports that Hamas is standing up a diplomatic corps, which would ostensibly exist to help carry out the needs of an independent political entity.
Still, some observers appear unconvinced. Hugh Naylor of The National quipped on Twitter that the “Likelihood Egypt obliges Hamas and fully opens Rafah [is] seemingly as likely as Hamas allowing me to down a Gaza City beer in broad daylight.” Of course, if there’s one thing to be learned from Gaza’s recent turbulent history, it’s to never discount the unthinkable.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former counterterrorism intelligence analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets at @JSchanzer.