Leading Israeli Middle East expert Ehud Yaari briefed journalists on a BICOM conference call on Monday 8 July on the situation in Egypt and its implications for Israel. The following is an edited transcript of his remarks. You can listen to the briefing on BICOM’s podcast page here.
Ehud Yaari is the veteran Middle East Commentator for Israel’s Channel 2 News, and an International Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has written eight books on the Israeli-Arab conflict and published many articles in the international press. He was the first Israeli journalist to visit Cairo, even before the peace treaty in 1979 and remains one of Israel’s most revered experts in Middle East affairs.
What is the immediate impact on security in the Sinai?
The situation is grave and perceived by the top echelon of Egyptian military to be very dangerous. We have different militias of Salafi Jihadists, Bedouins and volunteers from abroad. These are attacking, at will, Egyptian military and security positions in different areas of the Sinai. Not all attacks are being reported by the media. We are witnessing a state of semi-open rebellion by many tribes in the Sinai, led by Salafi militias who have declared the establishment of a ‘war council’ to fight against the Egyptian military. Morsi got the majority of the vote in Sinai (not that many bothered voting) and they are using his sacking as a pretext to vent traditional grievances against the Egyptian state.
The military is especially worried about the Suez, and the possibility of anti-tank missiles being used against ships. They have taken unprecedented precautions around the canal and oil installations in city of Suez at the southern point of the canal, following an attempt to fire a grad missile in the area.
The military does not want to take control of the Sinai. Defence Minister General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is keeping to the traditional line that the army’s role is to assist police and interior ministry forces and no more. In reality however there is no police activity in Sinai since the revolution in 2010, when most of the police stations were burned down by the policemen themselves. Israel has permitted Egypt, in the context of the Agreed Activities Mechanism (AAM) of the 1979 peace treaty, to introduce more troops, a few commando battalions, some tanks and more interestingly a few Apache helicopters, which according to the peace treaty are not allowed. The Egyptian army is showing the flag by manning roadblocks and defending sensitive government installations but this is still mostly talk, and there is no concerted effort to tackle the jihadist militias. For these militias the Toyota Land Cruiser with a machine gun mounted on the back has become the new camel.
What is the impact on Hamas in Gaza?
Hamas is in dire straits because it has lost to differing degrees most of its supporters. It has lost Hezbollah because of criticism by Hamas leaders, mainly political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal, for its military involvement in Syria. They have clearly lost the support of the Syrian regime itself. We have seen a small number of Hamas members from refugee camps in Syria involved in the uprising there. They have lost a lot of Iranian support because of Hamas’s position on Syria and there are signs of a change in the attitude of Qatar following the effective dismissal of its prime minister Hamad Bin Jassim, which was a real game changer from Hamas’s point of view. It was an additional blow therefore to lose the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
There is also an internal struggle within Hamas. The political leadership is following the general Muslim Brotherhood anti-Assad line, whilst the military command of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades and some of the other political leaders – Imad al-Alami, Mahmoud Zahar and others – are urging to maintain good contacts with Iran. Hamas has sent delegations to Beirut to meet Hezbollah and to Tehran but no real change has been detected so far in the attitudes of Iran and Hezbollah towards Hamas.
This is the most severe crisis amongst the top leadership of Hamas for many, many years. The people underground in Gaza who regard it as a fortress and see maintaining this fortress as a priority are undermining Meshaal and his like who are gradually losing influence within the movement. Military people have taken charge and won the last round of internal elections to the supreme bodies of Hamas. A figure to watch in particular is Imad al-Alami, previously based in Syria and now in Gaza, who is playing a very important role behind the scenes.
If Hamas and other Muslim brotherhood groups are weakened, does this empower Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and give him more flexibility in the peace process?
I think Abbas has already taken the decision that he has no alternative than to resume negotiations with the Israeli government. He has explained to his people that his purpose is to unmask Netanyahu, paving the way for further moves at the UN and ICC. I believe it is a matter of time before Secretary Kerry will be able to present a formula for the basis of negotiations. However, Abbas said recently in Beirut also said there can be no Palestinian state without Hamas and reconciliation between Gaza and West Bank, and I can’t see this happening in the near future.
What is Egypt doing about the smuggling tunnels from the Sinai into Gaza?
Blocking of the tunnels is partial, and is mainly done by flooding some tunnels with sewage water. The Egyptians are now doing it in a more determined manner than before because they are worried about infiltration from Gaza into Egypt of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the smuggling of weapons into Egypt. The main problem for Hamas along the tunnels is that the flow of arms from Iran has almost stopped completely. Hamas now has to try and upgrade whatever long-range rockets it has rather than expecting deliveries of Fajr-5 rockets from Iran.
What is the situation within the Gaza Strip between Hamas and more radical groups which might want to fire missiles into Israel?
Many of the armed Salafi activists in the Gaza Strip have been imprisoned by Hamas’s internal security services whilst others have been warned and are being closely monitored. There are all sorts of ad hoc deals between Hamas and these groups to stop them launching missiles into Israel. Occasionally one of these groups, calling itself the ‘Shura Council of the Jihad Warriors in the Environs of Jerusalem’, active both in the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, takes action which is almost invariably met by immediate punitive measures from Hamas. Hamas would like to maintain the ceasefire and is in no mood for a confrontation with Israel.
How is the dialogue between Israel and Egypt being conducted overall, and how might it be affected if former IAEA chief Mohammed el Baradei takes a leading role in the new government?
I am sceptical that El-Baradei will become Prime Minister though he may become one of the vice presidents of the temporary president Abdy Mansour but this is yet to be seen. El-Baradei is not well liked in Israel, certainly among people who deal with nuclear issues, but people appreciate that he represents the liberal trends in Egypt which we hope will have the upper hand.
As for the overall dealings between Israel and Egypt, Mohammed Morsi had a rule that neither he nor any government official at any level would maintain any contact with Israel nor its ‘half-embassy’ in Cairo and the relationship would remain the domain of the military and intelligence services. Conversely, in the year of Morsi’s presidency, co-operation between Israel and Egyptian intelligence and military services was probably the best it has ever been, both in coordinating policies on the Gaza strip and especially in the Sinai. General Sisi’s office was closely involved in dealings between the militaries and these contacts are being maintained.