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Thursday, August 07, 2014

Gaza Tension Stoked by Unlikely Alliance Between Israel and Egypt - Strategy of Squeezing Hamas Was Effective, but Helped Lead to Open Warfare, Officials Believe

From The Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. encouraged Israel and Egypt to forge a close security partnership. What Washington never anticipated was that the two countries would come to trust each other more than the Americans, who would watch events in Gaza unfold largely from the sidelines as the Israelis and the Egyptians planned out their next steps.

The seeds of the latest Israel-Hamas conflict were sown in 2012, when Hamas broke ranks with longtime allies Syria, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah and threw its support behind the rebels fighting to unseat President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war.
Hamas, which ruled Gaza for the past seven years, came to rely on cash supplied by Qatar transferred through Egypt, with the assent of Mr. Morsi, and on revenue from smuggling goods through tunnels reaching into Egypt. As long as Hamas controlled cross-border attacks, Israel tolerated the Islamist movement at its southern doorstep, Israeli officials said.
That pressure got dialed up when Mr. Morsi was deposed and Mr. Sisi rose to power. Israeli officials knew Egypt was as committed as they were to reining in Hamas when Mr. Sisi sent word earlier this year that his forces had completely destroyed 95% of the tunnels under Egypt's border with Gaza.
The revelation that Hamas was equally abhorrent to Mr. Sisi as it was to the Israeli government spurred efforts to reward him. Israel used its clout in Washington to lobby the Obama administration and Congress on his behalf, in particular arguing against a U.S. decision to cut off military aid to Egypt, Israeli officials said.
Mr. Sisi followed Israel's lobbying effort closely and was appreciative, the Israeli official said.
Cooperation with Israel is highly sensitive in Egypt and Egyptian officials declined to discuss in detail the partnership between the neighbors against Hamas.
In Gaza, there was shock at the events unfolding in Cairo.
Under the protective umbrella of Mr. Morsi's Islamist-led government, Hamas had imported large quantities of arms from Libya and Sudan, as well as money to pay the salaries of government officials and members of their armed wing, Israeli and U.S. officials said. His successor abruptly changed that.
"One day we had been sitting having great conversations with Morsi and his government and then suddenly, the door was shut," Ghazi Hamad, Hamas's deputy foreign minister, said in an interview last month.
Yet when Mr. Sisi closed nearly all of the tunnels along Egypt's border with Gaza but didn't compensate for the loss of those avenues by allowing the passage above ground of needed supplies, some Israeli officials said they privately began to raise alarm bells about the severity of Cairo's decisions.
"They actually were suffocating Gaza too much," one Israeli official said.
In Gaza, the situation grew desperate.
At the start of the year, Hamas realized that Egypt's campaign to destroy the tunnels was edging it toward bankruptcy.
In April, Hamas abruptly agreed to form a government of technocrats under Western-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, reconciling with the group that governed the West Bank after years of rivalry.
The growing dangers about Hamas's precarious position were flagged to Washington by the U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem, Michael Ratney. He saw the pressures building in the spring and concluded that Hamas was in desperate straits, unable to pay salaries to its 40,000 government workers in Gaza, and was now reaching out to the Palestinian Authority to try to relieve the pressure.
Mr. Abbas privately told diplomats afterward that he never expected Hamas to agree to the unity deal.
Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas leader in Gaza, said the group's inability to cover its monthly payroll forced it to reach out to the Palestinian Authority and Qatar, which pledged $60 million for three months. But U.S. and Israeli officials said Arab banks wouldn't make the transfer.
At the height of Hamas's distress, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank in June and subsequently found dead. Israel quickly concluded that Hamas was responsible and rounded up its activists in the West Bank, infuriating the group's armed wing in Gaza.
After the abduction, which U.S. officials believe was carried out by Hamas members without the approval of their leaders in Gaza, Israeli intelligence officials warned policy makers that "overly pressuring Hamas will lead to a conflagration," according to another senior Israeli official.
Palestinian officials told diplomats they were making a last-ditch effort to get the money for salaries to Gaza, believing that doing so might help defuse tensions but nothing came of it, diplomats said.
Rocket fire from Gaza escalated, and Israel began to respond with airstrikes.
U.S. officials, who tried to intervene in the initial days after the conflict broke out on July 8 to try to find a negotiated solution, soon realized that Mr. Netanyahu's office wanted to run the show with Egypt and to keep the Americans at a distance, according to U.S., European and Israeli officials.
The Americans, in turn, felt betrayed by what they saw as a series of "mean spirited" leaks, which they interpreted as a message from Mr. Netanyahu that U.S. involvement was neither welcomed nor needed.
Reflecting Egypt's importance, Mr. Gilad and other officials took Mr. Sisi's "temperature" every day during the war to make sure he was comfortable with the military operation as it intensified. Israeli officials knew television pictures of dead Palestinians would at some point bring Cairo to urge Israel to stop.
"We knew we could not do something that went beyond what they could digest," a senior Israeli official said of the Egyptians. Egypt's view mattered more than America's, Israeli officials said.
When a tentative deal finally came together in Cairo to stop the fighting, Washington found itself outside looking in on the Israeli-Egyptian partnership once again.
The Obama administration knew from Palestinian contacts earlier this week that representatives of Israel, Egypt and the Palestinians were working on a new cease-fire proposal but didn't know details because they were left largely out of the discussions.
Key American officials said they first heard about the breakthrough from Twitter and the media, rather than from their Israeli or Egyptian counterparts.


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