When Rami Fawda heard that the Rafah crossing was finally due to open, his reaction was one of relief mixed with anxiety.
The relief was because the 44-year-old engineer lives in Ankara, Turkey, where he has worked for 13 years and needed to get back. He had come to Gaza in the summer to see his family, for only the second time since he first moved, but got stuck, trying but failing to secure passage through Rafah – the boundary between Gaza and Egypt – three times.
Fawda then looked set to leave in October, when the Egyptian authorities announced a scheduled opening of Rafah following the fanfare of newly concluded preliminary unity negotiations between the Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas in Cairo. But that opportunity too was scuppered, this time by an attack on an Egyptian army checkpoint in the Sinai that claimed 30 lives, including six soldiers, and was attributed to the Islamic State group.
That 15 October attack was the reason for Fawda’s anxiety. In recent months, all-too-rare openings – the Rafah crossing has been functional for only around 30 days in all of 2017 – have time and again been canceled as a result of militant attacks in the Sinai.
The net effect means Sinai militants, many of whom have declared loyalty to the Islamic State, can hold two million Palestinians in Gaza hostage with its actions.
No longer an Egyptian issue
Fawda was luckier in November, but only just. The crossing was opened on 18 November for three days, and he managed to secure a permit to leave. Had he left it a week, when Cairo announced another three-day opening, he would have been disappointed again. On 24 November, gunmen stormed a mosque in the Sinai, killing more than 300 people. The Rafah crossing remained shut until last week.
From the Egyptian side, Fawda spoke of security checks and a huge military presence at the crossing. Egypt, he told The Electronic Intifada when reached by phone, has the “same fear we have.” Salafi militants in the Sinai, formerly of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis which in 2014 became Islamic State - Sinai Province, have in effect joined forces with Israel in “besieging Gaza,” Fawda said.
They have certainly found a way to pressure both Egypt and Hamas. Hamas, driven by the need to open Gaza to the outside world, has entered into a series of agreements with Cairo to help Egypt battle what has become a full-blown insurgency in the Sinai.
These include building a buffer zone along the Gaza-Sinai boundary and arresting Sinai militants in Gaza and have already caused ruptures in a long uneasy relationship between Hamas and Salafis in Gaza itself that has flared on several occasions over the past 10 years.
Hamas has paid a price for improving its relationship with Egypt, according to Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political analyst and lecturer with Al-Azhar University in Gaza. “Once Hamas clamped down on Salafi militants, Islamic State in the Sinai began retaliating, threatening Hamas operations there, including its commercial interests and weapons smuggling,” Abu Saada said.
The conflict in Sinai has thus become a broader struggle, one that directly has an impact on Gaza. Israel is largely seen in Gaza as the main beneficiary of enmity between Islamic State and Hamas.
And tensions beget tensions. Hamas security forces arrested suspected Islamic State members in the Tal al-Sultan area in Rafah as a response to the first suicide bombing claimed by Islamic State in Gaza during August. That in turn came after Hamas clamped down on infiltration in and out of Gaza.
Since then, the number of arrests has kept rising. Ashraf Issa, an officer in Gaza’s Hamas-run internal security service, told The Electronic Intifada there are now 550 suspected Islamic State fighters in jail in Gaza.
But that in turn threatens some of Hamas’ vital interests, not least supply lines through the Sinai, long used as a smuggling route for all kinds of goods and necessities, as well as weapons and munitions.
Certainly, that is the threat Islamic State would like to present. According to one Sinai-based Islamic State leader who operates under the nom de guerre Muhammad al-Yamani and was reached through a relative’s phone, every Islamic State operation “is a response to Hamas and Egyptian actions against our members.”
Al-Yamani vowed to keep striking at Egyptian military positions in the Sinai and warned Hamas that if it continues arresting Islamic State members, “we’ll destroy their military supply lines.”
He added: “We’re watching all the convoys passing through Sinai.”
He hung up before this reporter could ask any further questions.
The main targets for the Islamic State in Sinai are Egyptian. Notably, on 24 November, armed men opened fire in a mosque near El Arish in the Sinai during Friday prayers, the worst such attack in Egypt’s modern history.
But Islamic State has also been very active in the boundary area between Gaza and Egypt. In late October, three Palestinians working near the boundary were kidnapped in an operation blamed on Islamic State. They were beaten and interrogated for some 12 hours in Egyptian territory and then released, according to Abd al-Rahman Odeh, a Hamas security official, when it became clear that none of them were members of Hamas.
Odeh suggested the operation was an attempt to gain some leverage on Hamas for an exchange of prisoners.
Then, later in October, Tawfiq Abu Naim, the head of Hamas’ internal security service, was wounded in a car explosion that Hamas called a failed assassination attempt. Two members of Salafi groups in Gaza were arrested after the incident. A source close to the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Hamas blames Islamic State for the operation.
Prominent Hamas figures had earlier suggested Israel was behind the operation but this might be more for public consumption. Certainly, Salafi militants had motive. Since Abu Naim’s appointment, hundreds of Salafis in Gaza have been arrested. Abu Naim is also responsible for security at the Gaza-Egypt boundary where several dozen security checkpoints have been erected over the past months.
Nevertheless, there is clearly a confluence of interests between the Sinai branch of Islamic State and Israel in their battle with Hamas. Some in Hamas and analysts have suggested direct collusion involving Israel and Islamic State. Both had an interest in seeing the assassination of Abu Naim, according to Hussam al-Dajani, a politics lecturer at Ummah University in Gaza.
“Israel wanted to eliminate someone who is active in the resistance; Islamic State wanted to take revenge for the restrictions they are facing in Gaza,” al-Dajani said.
Islamic State operations in the Sinai have also contributed, if not been the main reason, for the delay in the long-promised opening of Rafah crossing. There is even talk of moving the actual crossing point closer to the coast to make it harder to attack.
According to Ashraf Juma, a Fatah legislator, there is no decision on this yet. “We submitted the request to Egypt and it was discussed, but haven’t received any confirmation yet,” he said.
The opening of Rafah crossing is crucial and it remains Hamas’ Achilles’ heel. It’s the only crossing into and out of Gaza that is likely to be permanently opened any time soon and for any reasonable use.
Israel imposed a closure on Gaza more than 10 years ago that Cairo mostly has gone along with.
That closure has had dramatic economic and social effects on this narrow, overpopulated coastal strip of land that has long been on the brink of humanitarian disaster and which the United Nations deemed would be uninhabitable by 2020.
As Hamas has already shown, it is willing to take difficult decisions, short of surrendering its arms, to ensure that Gaza opens to the world again. This includes formally ending sole rule over Gaza as well as antagonizing Salafi militants in Gaza and the Sinai.
Egypt – outside cooperation to quell the Sinai insurgency – has an interest in this, too. If done correctly, allowing travel through Rafah could boost Egypt’s poorly performing economy by opening up a new market for Egyptian goods while providing a focus for the Sinai economy outside smuggling and tourism.
But spoilers lie everywhere, not least among the Islamic State - Sinai Province.
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a freelance journalist and writer from Gaza.