Hamas denies it up and down. Nonetheless, there are growing signs that the Islamist movement, which is based in the Gaza Strip, is continuing to cooperate with other jihadi terror groups that are affiliated with Islamic State (ISIS), especially those that have been operating in the Egyptian peninsula of Sinai in recent years.
This cooperation, according to Palestinian Authority security sources, is the main reason behind the ongoing tensions between the Egyptian authorities and Hamas. These tensions have prompted the Egyptians to keep the Rafah border crossing mostly closed since 2013, trapping tens of thousands of Palestinians inside the Gaza Strip.
In 2015, the Egyptians opened the Rafah terminal for a total of twenty-one days to allow humanitarian cases and those holding foreign nationalities to leave or enter the Gaza Strip.
This year so far, Rafah has been open for a total of twenty-eight days. Sources in the Gaza Strip say there are about 30,000 humanitarian cases that need to leave immediately. They include dozens of university students who haven't been able to go back to their universities abroad and some 4,000 patients in need of urgent medical treatment.
Surprisingly, last week the Egyptians opened the Rafah terminal for five days in a row, allowing more than 4,500 Palestinians to leave and enter the Gaza Strip. The unusual gesture came on the eve of the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr. However, the terminal was closed again at the beginning of the feast on July 6.
The renewed closure of the Rafah terminal coincided with reports that efforts to end the tensions between Hamas and Egypt hit a snag. According to the reports, the Egyptian authorities decided to cancel a planned visit to Cairo by senior Hamas officials. The decision to cancel the visit, the reports said, came in the wake of the dissatisfaction of the Egyptians with the way Hamas has been handling security along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. The closure of the border crossing came as a blow to Hamas's efforts to patch up its differences with Egypt and pave the way for easing severe travel restrictions imposed by Cairo on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
In recent weeks, Hamas announced that it had deployed hundreds of its border guards along the shared border with Egypt in order to prevent infiltration both ways, especially of jihadi terrorists who have been targeting Egyptian security personnel and civilians in Sinai. However, the Egyptian authorities remain extremely skeptical about Hamas's measures.
Egyptian security officials are convinced that Hamas is not serious about preventing jihadi terrorists from crossing the border in either direction. Moreover, the Egyptians suspect that Hamas maintains close relations with some of the ISIS-affiliated groups in Sinai, and is providing them with weapons and medical treatment.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has refused to conduct high-level contacts with Hamas since he came to power in 2013. His regime views Hamas as a threat to Egypt's national security. The few meetings that did take place between the two sides were restricted to security issues; that was why Sisi entrusted his General Intelligence officials to conduct the discussions with the leaders of the Islamist movement who visited Cairo in the past months.
Apparently, the Egyptian skepticism towards Hamas is not unjustified.
In recent weeks, reports have surfaced that leave no doubt as to cooperation between Hamas and ISIS groups in Sinai. These reports, the Egyptians and Palestinian Authority argue, provide further evidence that the Gaza Strip remains a major base for various jihadi terror groups that pose a real threat not only to Egypt's national security, but also to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, as well as neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon.
Reports have also emerged that some of the jihadi terrorists in Sinai have been receiving medical treatment in hospitals in the Gaza Strip, with the approval of Hamas. The terrorists, who are wanted by the Egyptian authorities, are believed to have entered the Gaza Strip through smuggling tunnels along the border with Egypt.
According to one report, one of the terrorist leaders from Sinai, Abu Sweilem, was documented lying in bed at the Abu Yusef al-Najjar Hospital in the city of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. The report said that Abu Sweilem was hospitalized under the heavy guard of members of Hamas's armed wing, Ezaddin al-Qassam. It said that he, and other terrorists wanted by the Egyptian authorities, were admitted to the Gaza Strip hospital in return for weapons given to Hamas by the Islamic State in Sinai, which is known as Wilayat Sina'.
Another report by the same source claimed that Mohamed Abu Shawish, a senior member of Ezaddin al-Qassam in the Gaza Strip, has been helping train and organize the jihadi terrorists in Sinai. Hamas claimed that the man had fled the Gaza Strip to join ISIS and was wanted by its armed wing for defection. The report, however, noted that Abu Shawish was moving freely between the Gaza Strip and Sinai and was even using Hamas vehicles to commute between the two areas. It added that Abu Shawish has even set up a vast network of relations along the Palestinian side of the border with Egypt to facilitate the smuggling of weapons and terrorists in both directions.
The report goes on to reveal that the top Hamas operative is in touch with Eyad al-Khaldi, the owner of a clothing factory in the Gaza Strip, who has been supplying him with military uniforms and other equipment for the terrorists in Sinai. The report cites this as evidence of the growing activities of the Sinai-based jihadi terrorists inside the Gaza Strip, which is taking place with the blessing of top Hamas officials.
Hamas has in the past indeed cracked down on ISIS-affiliated groups and individuals in the Gaza Strip. But this happens only when they seem to pose some kind of a threat or challenge to Hamas's rule over the Gaza Strip.
This crackdown, however, has clearly not stopped Hamas members, especially those belonging to Ezaddin al-Qassam, from collaborating with other groups that are linked to ISIS and that are engaged in terror attacks against the Egyptians in Sinai. Isolated and desperate for cash in the Gaza Strip, Hamas seems prepared to cooperate with anyone in order to retain its control and survive.
Some Palestinians in the Gaza Strip argue that the double standard Hamas employs in dealing with the jihadi terrorists is the result of a split between its political and military wing. While the top political leaders of Hamas appear to be keen to distance themselves from the jihadi terrorists, the commanders of Ezaddin al-Qassam are acting independently and working with anyone who hands them weapons.
These Palestinians also point out that an increasing number of Ezaddin al-Qassam members have in recent years fled the Gaza Strip to join ISIS in Sinai, Syria and Iraq -- a development that continues to worry the political leadership of Hamas. Those who have not been able to flee the Gaza Strip are joining other jihadi groups that are operating inside the Gaza Strip.
Reports indicate that an increasing number of Hamas gunmen have in recent years fled the Gaza Strip to join ISIS in Sinai, Syria and Iraq. Pictured above: An August 2014 image of terrorists from the Islamic State in Sinai (then known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis), preparing to behead four Egyptians they accused of spying for Israel.
Last month, further evidence of this trend was provided by the death of Khaled al-Tarabin, a former Hamas operative killed while fighting alongside ISIS in Syria. He is the seventh Hamas-affiliated Palestinian to be killed while fighting alongside ISIS in Iraq and Syria in recent months, according to sources in the Gaza Strip.
Regardless of the level of cooperation between Hamas and jihadi terrorists in Sinai, the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip will pay the price. Reports about this cooperation simply entrench in the minds of the Egyptians the need to close the borders, humanitarian needs be damned.
As for the Palestinian Authority, all it can do for now is watch the Gaza Strip -- which it is hoping will become part of a future Palestinian state -- descend into hell.
Mahmoud Abbas and the leaders of the Palestinian Authority can continue to talk all they want about a Palestinian state that would be established in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. But when ISIS-inspired groups are active in the Gaza Strip and there are no signs that the Hamas regime is weakening, it is rather difficult to imagine a Palestinian state. Abbas has not been able to set foot in the Gaza Strip since 2007. Even his private residence in Gaza City is off-limits to him. But Hamas is just the beginning of the story for Abbas. The jihadi groups clearly seek to create an Islamic emirate combining the Gaza Strip and Sinai. The Palestinian Authority president might thank Israel for its presence in the West Bank -- a presence that allows him and his government to be something other than infidel cannon fodder for the jihadis.
Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem.