MIDEAST: Pressure Piling Up on Hamas Ahead of Unity Meet

Global Geopolitics Net Sites / IPS
Friday, October 17, 2008

All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service, 2008.

Analysis by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Oct 17 (IPS) – Egypt recently re-opened its border with the Gaza Strip to limited traffic in advance of an upcoming Palestinian reconciliation conference to be held in Cairo next month. But some independent commentators say Egypt is merely using the border as a means of pressuring resistance faction Hamas into accepting its proposals for a Palestinian national unity government.

”Cairo is playing the border card to coerce Hamas into accepting its terms for reconciliation with Fatah,” local journalist and political activist Hatem al-Bulk told IPS.

For three days last month, Egypt opened the border — sealed since Hamas took power in Gaza last year — to limited traffic. The decision came despite claims from Israeli security officials that Palestinian ”terrorists” would take advantage of the move to launch attacks on Israeli vacationers in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

From Sep. 20 to 22, the Rafah border crossing was opened to some 2,500 Palestinian students, medical patients and religious pilgrims en route to Saudi Arabia. ”On the first day, about 1,200 pilgrims and 150 medical patients made the crossing with relative ease,” said al-Bulk, a resident of north-western Sinai.

Al-Bulk added, however, that repeated Israeli objections to the move hampered cross-border traffic the following day. ”After renewed Israeli objections, there was a noticeable increase in bureaucratic delays, while a number of students were denied permission to make the crossing,” al-Bulk said.

The border was reopened again last week to allow returning pilgrims back into the embattled territory. According to reports, roughly 700 pilgrims have since returned to Gaza by way of Rafah, although another 500 Palestinians, including students and medical patients, remain stuck on the Egyptian side.

”The crossing is only open to pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia,” said al-Bulk. ”Hundreds of others are still stranded in Egypt.”

The spate of limited border openings comes amid stepped up Egyptian efforts to broker an agreement for national reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and the U.S.-backed Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, based in the West Bank. Since Hamas seized control of Gaza from the PA in a pre-emptive coup last year, the two factions have pursued a bitter rivalry — featuring mass arrests and intermittent fighting — that has led to dire consequences for the Palestinian national cause.

While Hamas follows a policy of resistance to Israeli occupation, Fatah maintains a strategy of negotiation with the Jewish state, despite the failure of peace talks until now to realise any gains for the Palestinian side.

In recent weeks, Egyptian officials have held separate talks in Cairo with a dozen different Palestinian factions — including both Hamas and Fatah — in hopes of reaching a ”comprehensive dialogue” agreement, expected to be signed by all the factions at a major reconciliation conference in Cairo early next month. Egypt hopes the pact will eventually lead to a Palestinian government of national unity.

Along with Palestinian agreement on the terms of a unity government, the Egyptian proposal also calls for a broad prisoner-exchange deal between Hamas and Israel. It also calls on Hamas to relinquish exclusive control of the Gaza Strip and on Israel to permanently open Gaza’s border crossings to human and material traffic.

After voicing initial reservations, Hamas officials reportedly agreed to the terms of the proposal following a series of meetings with Egyptian officials in Cairo last week. ”The Egyptians told me personally that Hamas accepted the plan,” PA negotiator Nabil Shaath was quoted as saying in the state press Oct. 12.

Hamas also reportedly confirmed its intention to attend bilateral Hamas-Fatah talks in Cairo on Oct. 25 in advance of the Nov. 3 ”comprehensive dialogue” conference. If they are not derailed by political wrangling, these talks will represent the first official meeting between the two rivals since Hamas’s seizure of Gaza in the summer of last year, after winning elections there in 2006.

”When Hamas makes concessions in its conditions for participating, Egypt opens the border; when Hamas stands firm, Egypt closes it,” said al-Bulk. ”With Hamas now firmly ensconced in Gaza, this is Egypt’s only means of exerting pressure on it.”

Abdelaziz Shadi, coordinator of Cairo University’s Israeli studies programme, agreed for the most part, saying Egypt’s recent moves to open the border were based on strategic — in addition to humanitarian — concerns.

”Egypt opened Rafah in order to ease the ongoing siege of Gaza,” Shadi told IPS. ”But Egypt also wants to foster a suitable environment for successful dialogue by sending a message to the Palestinian factions that Egypt is the only real ‘strategic depth’ available to them.”

Since assuming power in Gaza, Hamas has demanded that Egypt open the Rafah crossing to people and goods on a permanent basis. Egypt, however — along with the PA, Israel and the U.S. — maintains that Rafah can only be opened according to a 2005 U.S.-backed agreement granting the PA and Israel de facto control over the crossing.

In late January, some half million Palestinians flocked into the northern Sinai Peninsula from Gaza to stock up on essential supplies following the partial destruction of the border fence. The frontier was re-sealed ten days later amid limited clashes between Palestinians and Egyptian authorities.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit infamously declared at the time that anyone approaching the sensitive border without permission ”would have his legs broken.”

Since then, security on the Egyptian side has increased dramatically, including the construction of a new security wall along the entire length of the country’s 14 kilometre border with the Gaza Strip.

”Border security has been tightened substantially in recent months,” said al-Bulk. ”The authorities are searching for smuggling tunnels on a daily basis and they have just finished building a separation wall — four meters tall and two meters thick — between Egypt and Gaza.”

Hamas won an outright majority in 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Nevertheless, its authority in Gaza is not recognised by the international community, while the Gaza Strip remains subject to an internationally sanctioned embargo that has effectively deprived its roughly 1.5 million inhabitants of desperately needed food, medicine and fuel.