(Reuters) - After crushing the Muslim Brotherhood at home, Egypt's military rulers plan to undermine the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which runs the neighbouring Gaza Strip, senior Egyptian security officials told Reuters.
The aim, which the officials say could take years to pull off, includes working with Hamas's political rivals Fatah and supporting popular anti-Hamas activities in Gaza, four security and diplomatic officials said.
Since it seized power in Egypt last summer, Egypt's military has squeezed Gaza's economy by destroying most of the 1,200 tunnels used to smuggle food, cars and weapons to the coastal enclave, which is under an Israeli blockade.
Now Cairo is becoming even more ambitious in its drive to eradicate what it says are militant organisations that threaten its national security.
Intelligence operatives, with help from Hamas's political rivals and activists, plan to undermine the credibility of Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007 after a brief civil war against the Fatah movement led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
According to the Egyptian officials, Hamas will face growing resistance by activists who will launch protests similar to those in Egypt that have led to the downfall of two presidents since the Arab Spring in 2011. Cairo plans to support such protests in an effort to cripple Hamas.
"Gaza is next," said one senior security official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We cannot get liberated from the terrorism of the Brotherhood in Egypt without ending it in Gaza, which lies on our borders."
Asked why Egyptian intelligence is not going after Hamas now, another senior security official said: "Their day will come."
Egypt accuses Hamas of backing al Qaeda-linked militant groups which have stepped up attacks against security forces in Egypt's Sinai peninsula over the past few months. The attacks have spread to Cairo and other cities.
Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas deny accusations of terrorism, and the Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful activism. The group was ousted from power in Egypt after the military threw its weight behind street protests last summer.
Freely-elected president Mohamed Mursi is now on trial on charges of inciting the murder of protesters during his presidency. Egypt's military-backed government has cracked down hard on the Brotherhood, arresting almost its entire leadership and thousands of its backers as well as formally declaring it a terrorist organisation.
But the situation is very different in Gaza, where Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood, is heavily armed, has years of experience fighting Israel, and moves swiftly to squash dissent.
A Hamas official said the comments made to Reuters by Egyptian officials showed Cairo was inciting violence and trying to provoke chaos.
"We reaffirm that Hamas did not and never would intervene in the internal Egyptian affairs," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters. "No one should ever dream to weaken Hamas.
"A LOT OF ANGER"
So far, contacts between Egypt and Fatah have been limited to discussing ways to help Fatah undermine Hamas, said the officials. They declined to name Palestinians involved in those discussions or give details of how many meetings have been held.
Hamas keeps Fatah party officials under very close watch in Gaza. A senior Fatah official in the occupied West Bank, where the party is far more powerful, denied any plot to oust Hamas.
"There is a lot of anger in Gaza. People are suffering, but protest is not easy. We cannot hope that Hamas will vanish tomorrow," he said.
Hamas has an estimated 20,000 fighters, with another 20,000 in its police and security forces. Despite growing economic hardship in Gaza, the group can still draw on significant support from among the territory's 1.8 million people.
But Egyptian officials hope to exploit tensions with rival militant groups, even if there are no signs of major splits yet.
"We know that Hamas is powerful and armed but we also know that there are other armed groups in Gaza that are not on good terms with Hamas and they could be used to face Hamas," another Egyptian security source said.
"All people want is to eat, drink and have a decent living, and if a government, armed or not, fails to provide that, then the people will rise against it in the end," the source said.
"THE FIRST SPARK"
In early January, Cairo publicly hosted the first conference of a new anti-Hamas youth group called Tamarud, or rebel, the same name used by the Egyptian youth movement that led last year's protests against Mursi.
Members of the Palestinian Tamarud stood with the Palestinian flag wrapped around their necks to highlight what they called Hamas's crimes against activists in Gaza.
The event was attended by representatives from Egyptian liberal parties and Fatah.
"We support the movement and any peaceful movement against the cruelty of the Islamist group that is part of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood organisation," said Ayman al-Raqb, a Fatah official in Cairo in his speech at the conference.
The activists showed video clips of masked gunmen chasing and dragging away protesters, and posted banners showing activists who they said had been tortured by Hamas for their opposition.
The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights last year accused Hamas of orchestrating a fierce crackdown against activists suspected of trying to organise a Tamarud-like protest in November. It said some of those detained were tortured and the mooted rally never materialised.
Hamas has accused Tamarud members of being Israeli agents, but has denied allegations of torture.
Activists in Cairo have called for protests in Gaza on March 21.
Egyptian officials hope that future Hamas crackdowns may turn the tide against the movement's leadership.
"Surely, the world will not stand still and allow Hamas to kill Palestinians. Someone will interfere," said the Egyptian security official. "But so far we are only working on firing the first spark."
But officials also concede that the plan is likely to take years.
"The aid Egypt will mainly provide to the anti-Hamas groups will be logistical not financial. Tamaruds don't cost much," one Egyptian security official said.
The plan to undermine Hamas reflects renewed confidence among Egypt's security forces after being sidelined following the fall of long-time president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Senior security officials are now determined to eliminate their Islamist foes for good - inside and outside Egypt.
They were angry when Mursi became the first Egyptian president to meet Hamas leaders in the presidential palace. Mursi also sent his prime minister to Gaza on the second day of an Israeli offensive on the enclave in November 2012.
Many Egyptians believe the Brotherhood intended to give part of the Sinai to Hamas. The Brotherhood has consistently denied the allegation.
Mursi's administration did acknowledge the problem posed by the tunnels under the border between Egypt and Gaza. His national security adviser last year said the government was flooding a number of tunnels he described as illegal.
But the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza was kept open for much of Mursi's rule, allowing vital food and goods to flow into Gaza.
After Mursi's overthrow, the army took over command of the Sinai and started destroying hundreds of tunnels. No Hamas official has been allowed to travel into Egypt since then.
Last month, Egypt's public prosecutor accused Hamas of conspiring with Mursi and Iran to stage terrorist attacks in Egypt.
"We know Hamas is the Brotherhood and the Brotherhood (members) are terrorists and no country could develop with terrorists in or around it," the security official said.
Gaza prime minister and Hamas deputy leader Ismail Haniyeh has said repeatedly since July that his group is focused exclusively on confronting arch-foe Israel and has no armed presence in Egypt.
"We do not intervene in Egyptian internal affairs," he told supporters last month. "Egypt cannot do without us and we cannot do without Egypt. This historical, geographic and security link can never be severed."
However, an Egyptian security official, who declined to be named, dismissed his words. "They (Hamas leaders) can say what they want on their role in Sinai. We don't base our judgment on them, but on intelligence and information."
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer and Nidal Al Mughrabi; Editing by Michael Georgy and Simon Robinson)
Poster's Note: Egypt, don't stop, it's about time to destroy HamAss, and to wipe this terrorist organization OFF the global map!
More Quotes About "Palestine"
"There is no such country as Palestine. 'Palestine' is a term the Zionists invented. There is no Palestine in the Bible. Our country was for centuries part of Syria. 'Palestine' is alien to us. It is the Zionists who introduced it".
- Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi, Syrian Arab leader to British Peel Commission, 1937 -
"There is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not".
- Professor Philip Hitti, Arab historian, 1946 -
"It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but Southern Syria".
- Representant of Saudi Arabia at the United Nations, 1956 -
Concerning the Holy Land, the chairman of the Syrian Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in February 1919 stated:
"The only Arab domination since the Conquest in 635 c.e. hardly lasted, as such, 22 years".
"There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent (valley of Jezreel, Galilea); not for thirty miles in either direction... One may ride ten miles hereabouts and not see ten human beings. For the sort of solitude to make one dreary, come to Galilee... Nazareth is forlorn... Jericho lies a mouldering ruin... Bethlehem and Bethany, in their poverty and humiliation... untenanted by any living creature... A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds... a silent, mournful expanse... a desolation... We never saw a human being on the whole route... Hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil had almost deserted the country... Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes... desolate and unlovely...".
- Mark Twain, "The Innocents Abroad", 1867 -
"In 1590 a 'simple English visitor' to Jerusalem wrote: 'Nothing there is to bescene but a little of the old walls, which is yet remayning and all the rest is grasse, mosse and weedes much like to a piece of rank or moist grounde'.".
- Gunner Edward Webbe, Palestine Exploration Fund,
Quarterly Statement, p. 86; de Haas, History, p. 338 -
"The land in Palestine is lacking in people to till its fertile soil".
- British archaeologist Thomas Shaw, mid-1700s -
"Palestine is a ruined and desolate land".
- Count Constantine François Volney, XVIII century French author and historian -
"The Arabs themselves cannot be considered but temporary residents. They pitched their tents in its grazing fields or built their places of refuge in its ruined cities. They created nothing in it. Since they were strangers to the land, they never became its masters. The desert wind that brought them hither could one day carry them away without their leaving behind them any sign of their passage through it".
- Comments by Christians concerning the Arabs in Palestine in the 1800s -
"Then we entered the hill district, and our path lay through the clattering bed of an ancient stream, whose brawling waters have rolled away into the past, along with the fierce and turbulent race who once inhabited these savage hills. There may have been cultivation here two thousand years ago. The mountains, or huge stony mounds environing this rough path, have level ridges all the way up to their summits; on these parallel ledges there is still some verdure and soil: when water flowed here, and the country was thronged with that extraordinary population, which, according to the Sacred Histories, was crowded into the region, these mountain steps may have been gardens and vineyards, such as we see now thriving along the hills of the Rhine. Now the district is quite deserted, and you ride among what seem to be so many petrified waterfalls. We saw no animals moving among the stony brakes; scarcely even a dozen little birds in the whole course of the ride".
- William Thackeray in "From Jaffa To Jerusalem", 1844 -
"The country is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is of a body of population".
- James Finn, British Consul in 1857 -
"The area was underpopulated and remained economically stagnant until the arrival of the first Zionist pioneers in the 1880's, who came to rebuild the Jewish land. The country had remained "The Holy Land" in the religious and historic consciousness of mankind, which associated it with the Bible and the history of the Jewish people. Jewish development of the country also attracted large numbers of other immigrants - both Jewish and Arab. The road leading from Gaza to the north was only a summer track suitable for transport by camels and carts... Houses were all of mud. No windows were anywhere to be seen... The plows used were of wood... The yields were very poor... The sanitary conditions in the village [Yabna] were horrible... Schools did not exist... The rate of infant mortality was very high... The western part, toward the sea, was almost a desert... The villages in this area were few and thinly populated. Many ruins of villages were scattered over the area, as owing to the prevalence of malaria, many villages were deserted by their inhabitants".
- The report of the British Royal Commission, 1913 -