With Brotherhood's fall in Egypt, Hamas faces Gaza's harsh reality again

Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, never had a better year than when it had an ally in Cairo's top office who considered Gaza's interests. 

By , Correspondent

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    Palestinian workers push back a trolley into a smuggling tunnel along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, July 24. Although Egypt was moving against Gaza's smuggling tunnels even when ousted Egypt President Mohamed Morsi was in power, the crackdown has been intensified since the military resumed formal control.
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President Mohamed Morsi's ousting by Egypt's military wasn't just bad news for his Muslim Brotherhood. It was bad news for Gaza's Hamas, which greeted Mr. Morsi's electoral triumph a year ago with the hope that it would end Hamas's economic and political isolation. 

At the time, Hamas leaders and supporters handed out sweets and fired guns to celebrate the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot. They figured that open borders with Egypt, after years of sporadic closures by Egypt's Hosni Mubarak following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, would improve Gazans' quality of life and their own political position.

They were half-right. Hamas never had a better year in Gaza than Morsi's year in power, although his government kept Gaza cut off from Egypt much as Mubarak had in an attempt to keep up ties with Israel and the United States. But Morsi also promised a broader economic opening to the enclave, and there was a new spirit of optimism among Hamas stalwarts on the ground.

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The honeymoon period came to an abrupt end, however, when the Egyptian military removed Morsi on July 3, leaving Hamas to deal with a new-old enemy after 12 euphoric months under the Muslim Brotherhood. The military's animosity toward Hamas is such that when it detained Morsi, one of the accusations made against the former president was that he had contact with the group during his escape from prison in 2011. 

Since the Hamas takeover in 2007, the Egyptian Army has consistently accused it of meddling in Egyptian internal affairs and of being behind militant operations in the Sinai Peninsula that have destabilized the region and killed scores of Egyptian soldiers. It did not take long for the military to begin anew its battle with Hamas. 

Gazans choke on tunnel shutdown

Although Egypt was moving against Gaza's smuggling tunnels even when Morsi was in power, the crackdown has been intensified since the military resumed formal control. The Egyptian army has destroyed, shut down, or flooded many of the tunnels, which are important economic lifelines for Gaza. The above-ground, official Rafah crossing is only for foreigners and Palestinians needing treatment in Egyptian hospitals.

It will be awhile before the political impact of Morsi's fall is felt in Gaza, but the economic pain is already evident – cars wait in long lines for a few liters of fuel, and the price of smuggled food and construction materials has gone up, with the cost of the latter doubling. 

Hamas has to provide food and goods for the people under its rule or risk unpopularity, Gaza economic analyst Mohsen Abu Ramadan says. But now that the Egyptian military has cracked down on the smuggling tunnels – destroying 80 percent of them, it said last week – Hamas can't do so.

"Hamas is responsible for 1.7 million Palestinians who need food, fuel, and other goods to continue their lives. Israel does not allow all goods into Gaza, and exports are also banned, so Hamas feels embarrassed for being unable to meet the needs of Gaza residents," Mr. Abu Ramadan says.

According to the Gaza economic ministry, the recent tunnel destruction has cost Gaza around $230 million. Hamas Spokesman Sami Abu Zohri appealed to the Egyptian authorities, asking them not to shut down the tunnels until Hamas could find other channels for bringing goods into Gaza.

Mr. Abu Zohri said that most of the tunnels have been destroyed and the remaining ones are not being used because smuggling has ceased amid clashes in the Sinai between the Egyptian military and militants. He adds that the situation was better under Mubarak. 

Abu Ramadan says Hamas may use the closure to remind the world that Gaza is blockaded by Israel and to increase pressure on Israel to lift the blockade.

Friendless, and maybe penniless

Shortages are not the only problem Hamas now faces. 

For the first time in more than two decades, it has no regional political allies in positions of power – a huge problem for a movement that is heavily dependent on alliances that provide financial, military, and political support.

Sunni Hamas severed ties with former ally Syria last year over its crackdown on the predominantly Sunni Syrian opposition.  

The two, along with Iran and Hezbollah, formed the so-called "axis of resistance" that opposed Israel and the West. For decades, Syria embraced Hamas leadership and provided the Islamic movement with funds, weapons, and political support, which were used to wage war against Israel and, later, the more moderate Palestinian party, Fatah.

Hamas turned to Turkey and Qatar to fill the void – seemingly a far more beneficial alliance than the old one. The Sunni powerhouses have flooded Gaza with cash and construction projects and, as a bonus, they are more palatable to the US and Europe than their former allies. 

But political alliances shift rapidly in this region, and since Egypt's Islamist government was toppled, Hamas's relationship with Turkey and Qatar has seemed to be faltering – Egypt was the critical link between Gaza and its benefactors because of its shared border.

It is unclear if the new emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamas al-Thani, will continue to support Hamas at the same level of his father, who gave $400 million to Gaza for construction projects. Turkey, meanwhile, is preoccupied with antigovernment protests, as well as containing the fallout from Syria. 

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