It is worth reexamining the reaction of Hamas and some of its allies to an Egyptian court’s decision last week to designate the Islamist group’s military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, as a terrorist organization. Ultimately, this is simply a legal decision; the case is subject to retrial or appeal like any other. It also came as a result of an individual claim against the group and not through any executive or political authority. And, moreover, Egypt must respect the decisions of its judiciary.
In reality, it is unlikely that this decision will affect either Hamas or Al-Qassam on the ground, or that they will commence a lengthy legal battle in Egypt in order to reverse it. The Al-Qassam Brigades is, after all, a secret organization whose members only seem able to appear in public hooded, one which parent organization Hamas even sometimes denies any links with, especially if Al-Qassam has been involved in bombing attacks or attacks against civilians.
But many countries around the world have already designated Al-Qassam and Hamas as terrorist organizations, though they may still conduct dealings with these “terrorists” under the table.
So, then, what was it that made Hamas so irate about the court’s decision? The answer here is that it was a bitter blow for the group, with the decision coming from a court in the Arab country considered the foremost champion of the Palestinian cause (and not just historically, or on paper, but in fact). As I mentioned above, the case was opened as a result of a claim made by an individual and not through the efforts of any official or governmental channel, a fact which has both political and social implications.
It is no secret the authorities in Egypt have been at odds with Hamas over the last couple of decades due to the division it has caused in the Palestinian political scene, and the harm its actions have caused to Palestinian interests. This was especially the case when late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was attempting to negotiate with former Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin, and the Israeli prime ministers who came after him, under the direct auspices of the United States. At the time, Hamas and Al-Qassam were carrying out regular suicide bombing campaigns, though most of the targets of these attacks—cafes, restaurants, buses and other public facilities—had no military value whatsoever.
However, the frosty Egyptian stance toward Hamas has always been tempered by its commitment to the just cause of the Palestinian people—to end the occupation of their lands and establish their own state. Even when, towards the end of the era of former president Hosni Mubarak, Hamas encouraged tens of thousands of people to illegally cross the Egyptian border for a period lasting a number of days—as if the Palestinian problem could only be solved by compromising Egyptian territory—the reaction from Cairo was measured, despite the dangerous intentions declared by Hamas at the time. Cairo has also looked the other way when it comes to the issue of the tunnels that run underneath the border and into Egyptian territory, despite the obvious way these tunnels endanger Egypt’s security, especially given the regular traffic of weapons that go through them.
What was clear then, and even clearer during the short-lived rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, was that Hamas was seeking in Sinai what Hezbollah had achieved in southern Lebanon: the occupation of a self-contained strip of land in another country, from where it could move freely—and, importantly, one far away from the tiny strip of land it occupies in Gaza, where it has been effectively cornered by the Israelis. That is, it sought, at the expense of Egypt, a place where it could more effectively exercise its efforts against the Palestinian leadership. But this scheme was always a long shot. There is nothing in Egyptian law or even among the popular consciousness in the country that would allow Egypt to cede the sovereignty and authority of the state, including its authority to control the movement and use of arms, to anyone else, even partially. So it was inevitable a conflict between Hamas and Egypt would emerge here, especially after the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in July 2013, when Hamas naturally took a stance supportive of its parent organization.
The real problem here isn’t the Al-Qassam Brigades or the court’s decision against it; the problem is Hamas itself, its ideology, and its presence in Gaza. Not only is the group a security risk, its existence and actions are a serious impediment to the Palestinian cause. If this isn’t the case, then why does Hamas not allow the Palestinian unity government to work in Gaza? Why does it prevent the Palestinian Authority from overseeing control of the tunnels, including the movement of people and goods? And why does it always seek outside help, and thereby end up a pawn for foreign interests, when Ramallah is just a stone’s throw away?