Egypt’s new government has imposed the toughest border restrictions on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in years, sealing smuggling tunnels, blocking most passenger traffic and causing millions of pounds in economic losses.
Some in Hamas fear the movement is being swept up in the same Egyptian military campaign that earlier this month toppled the country’s democratically elected Islamist president Mohammed Morsi – who, like the Gaza rulers, is part of the region’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt’s military has said the Gaza restrictions are part of its security crackdown in the Sinai Peninsula and has not suggested it is trying to weaken the Hamas government or bring it down in the process.
The new Gaza border restrictions are tougher than any enforced by Mr Morsi’s pro-Western predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, a foe of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Gaza residents and Hamas officials.
An ongoing border closure is bound to further weaken Hamas’s popularity in Gaza, as the economy takes a new hit and Gazans are once again unable to travel.
At the time of Mr Morsi’s removal, some officials in Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, Hamas’ main rival, privately expressed hope that the Hamas government would be next.
Hamas leaders have been careful not to criticise Egypt’s border clampdown in public, for fear of being accused of meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs. However, Gaza’s top Hamas official, prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, has complained that Egyptian media reports “about Hamas interference in the Egyptian affairs in support of president Morsi are not true”.
Some Egyptian media outlets have described Hamas as a troublemaker aiding Muslim militants in Egypt’s lawless Sinai, next to Gaza. Mr Morsi is believed to have held back on security clampdowns for fear of angering more radical supporters.
Authorities in Egypt moved quickly against the Brotherhood after Mr Morsi’s July 3 removal. They arrested several of the group’s leaders, and have kept him incommunicado at an undisclosed location. Sinai militants have taken advantage of the turmoil and launched daily attacks against Egyptian security forces, killing more than a dozen soldiers and policemen this month alone.
Yesterday, Egypt’s military chief, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, called on his countrymen to hold mass demonstrations later this week to voice their support for the army, and in four new Sinai attacks, suspected militants killed two soldiers and wounded three others.
Meanwhile, the US is delaying delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt in light of the military overthrow of Mr Morsi, but has not decided whether to suspend military aid more broadly, the Pentagon said.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said president Barack Obama made the decision to hold up the F-16 delivery while the administration continues to review options and consult Congress on military assistance generally.
The four F-16s were to be delivered under a previously arranged sale of 20. Eight of the F-16s were delivered earlier this year.
Also on order by the Egyptian military are US-made M1A1 Abrams tanks; the administration has not yet decided whether to go ahead with those.