- - Wednesday, July 16, 2014

CAIRO — The Palestinian militant group Hamas is losing support among Egyptians, who increasingly are criticizing its role in the violence plaguing the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Once friendly toward Gaza’s ruling regime, Egypt has become wary of Hamas militants in the tumultuous year since the Egyptian military overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-led administration of President Mohammed Morsi.

Amira Seif El-Din, a 45-year-old housewife, said she is fed up with militants harming ordinary people to gain traction politically or spread dangerous ideologies that don’t represent Islam.

“Everybody in this region has paid [a] high price because of the spread of terrorism and extremism,” she said. “The problem is very deep.”

Samir Ghattas, director of the Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies, an Egyptian think tank, said that perspective is common in Egypt. Although the vast majority of Egyptians dislike Israel and sympathize with the Palestinians, they think Hamas is provoking the violence.

“Everybody here in Cairo and in many Arab cities knows that Hamas is behind this wave of violence in order to earn some sympathy,” Mr. Ghattas said.


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On Wednesday, Israel agreed to a U.N.-brokered plan for a five-hour “humanitarian” pause in the hostilities, but there was no word from Hamas on whether it would observe the pause.

Hamas last week began firing rockets from Gaza into Israel, prompting an Israeli retaliation of airstrikes. Israel cracked down on the Palestinian group after the discovery of three Israeli teens who had been killed in the West Bank.

More than 200 Palestinians and one Israeli have died in the fighting, according to Palestinian and Israeli health officials. About 1,500 Palestinians and several Israelis have been wounded.

As the conflict has escalated, condemnations of Hamas and calls to boost humanitarian aid for Palestinians have mounted.

“People in Gaza have suffered because of Hamas and Israel,” said Mahmoud Sead, 20. “It is time that countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia help them with their basic needs.”

Egyptians’ attitudes toward Hamas are likely to worsen in the wake of the militant group’s rejection of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s cease-fire plan Tuesday.

Israel accepted the proposal, but Hamas said the plan failed to achieve its objectives of lifting Egypt and Israel’s blockade of Gaza and gaining the release of prisoners in Israel. Fighting resumed after a brief lull while the two sides mulled over the plan.

Hamas‘ rejection of Mr. el-Sissi’s cease-fire could stem from the deteriorated relations between the group and the Egyptian government after Mr. Morsi’s ouster, said Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

Hamas is the Palestinian faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, the multinational organization that vaulted Mr. Morsi to power during the Arab Spring. After Mr. el-Sissi deposed Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s government labeled the Brotherhood as a terrorist group and banned it.

Much of the anti-Hamas rhetoric in Egypt could be exaggerated, given that Hamas supporters are less apt to voice their opinions under Mr. el-Sissi’s regime, Mr. Levy said.

“The fault line of whether Egyptians are pro-Hamas or not will follow the fault line of whether Egyptians supported the deposing of Morsi or not,” he said. “We don’t know how split they are. We haven’t had a genuine election in Egypt.”

For decades, Washington has relied on Egypt — the Arab world’s most populous country, with more than 80 million residents — as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, providing Cairo with millions of dollars in military and other aid as it maintained its peace treaty with Israel.

Washington’s influence in Cairo waned in the aftermath of the 2011 ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, which gave rise to the Muslim Brotherhood’s return to Egypt’s political forefront.

In addition, Egypt’s regional influence has diminished since the Arab Spring amid its political upheaval, social unrest and economic crash.

Still, the Obama administration has thrown its support behind Mr. el-Sissi, who is unlikely to be able to influence Hamas the way Mr. Morsi did.

“I don’t think Sissi has the clout the way Morsi did when he brokered the last cease-fire,” Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said last week. “He just doesn’t have the clout with Hamas that Morsi did.”

Nonetheless, Hamas has found ways to alienate Egyptians.

Breaking Egypt’s blockade, Hamas has transported people and goods via tunnels under the closed border between Egypt and Gaza, said Akram Alfy, deputy director of the new Cairo-based think tank Ahwal Masrya Center for Political Studies.

The Egyptian military repeatedly closes the tunnels, but more open up, Mr. Alfy said, adding that the cat-and-mouse game has stoked perceptions of Hamas as lawless.

“The public considers Hamas now as any other radical group,” he said.

Hamas‘ reluctance to reconcile with the Palestinian political party Fatah, which controls the West Bank, also has undermined support for the militant group, Mr. Alfy said.

Last month, Hamas and Fatah formed a unity government, but it doesn’t include Hamas members. A true unity government would bring the two territories together under the Palestinian Authority and likely would improve the chances of peace, Mr. Alfy said, adding that the so-called coalition grants Hamas legitimacy without responsibilities.

Hamas has proved to the Arab public opinion over the last decade that it only cares about its interests, everything it does indicates that it has no interest to either have reconciliation with the other Palestinian factions in West Bank or peace with Israel,” he said.

Mr. Levy said criticism of Hamas and the wave of sympathy among Egyptians for Palestinians reflects a development in the Gaza crisis. Egyptians traditionally don’t hold Palestinians in high regard.

“There is a strand within Egyptian nationalism which can be quite demeaning toward the Palestinians,” he said.

Now disgusted with Hamas, Egyptians are viewing their Palestinian neighbors — and Egypt’s responsibilities to them — in a new light.

“I am against all Hamas actions,” said Adel Samy, 33, a civil servant. “But in the end we cannot punish the people in Gaza.”

Guy Taylor in Washington contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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