The decision that was taken this week by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to halt the rocket attacks on Israel is seen by many Palestinians as an indication of Egypt's growing involvement in the affairs of the Gaza Strip. The Egyptians, who ruled Gaza until 1967, have emerged as the major power-brokers in the area, able to enforce their will on almost all Palestinian parties.
At the behest of Israel and the US, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agreed earlier this year to play the role of "babysitter" in the Gaza Strip to allow a smooth Israeli withdrawal from the area. Since then, the hotels of Ramallah and Gaza City have been swarming with Egyptian intelligence officers and security experts, tasked with ensuring that armed Palestinian groups don't violate the tahdiyah (calm) agreement that was reached under the auspices of Cairo.
The Egyptian teams have been holding almost daily meetings with representatives of the Palestinian Authority and all Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Some Palestinian officials admitted this week that had it not been for Egypt, the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip would have taken an uglier and bloodier turn.
"Thanks to Egypt's efforts, not one soldier or settler was killed during the withdrawal," noted one official. "[Egypt] put very heavy pressure on all the Palestinian groups to refrain from attacking the Israeli army and settlers."
This week Egyptian diplomats and intelligence officers based in Gaza City spent many hours trying to prevent a total collapse of the tahdiyah in the aftermath of last Friday's explosion in Jabalya refugee camp.
According to sources close to Hamas, the movement's leaders came under "unprecedented pressure" from Egypt to stop firing rockets at Israel and to return to the tahdiyah.
Egyptian Intelligence chief Gen. Omar Suleiman is said to have phoned Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who is based in Damascus, and warned him that Cairo would stop playing the role of mediator unless Hamas halted its attacks immediately. Simultaneously, Suleiman's representatives in the Gaza Strip delivered a "last warning" to Mahmoud Zahar and other Hamas leaders.
The Egyptian threats did not go unheeded. On Monday night, contrary to all expectations, Zahar called a press conference to announce an end to his movement's "military activities" against Israel. And in another surprise move, Islamic Jihad, despite reservations by some of its leaders, decided to follow suit the next day.
Although Mubarak's efforts are believed to be linked mainly to his desire to win US support to remain in power indefinitely, the Egyptians have a genuine interest in maintaining calm and order inside the Gaza Strip. Their major fear is that unrest and turmoil in Gaza could spill over into Sinai and create additional problems for the regime in Cairo. In recent days there have been unconfirmed reports that al-Qaida terrorists have arrived in Sinai with plans to cooperate with armed Palestinian groups against both Israel and Egypt. Even Hizbullah is said to have sent its top operative, Qais Obeid, a former Israeli citizen, to the Egyptian resort town of El-Arish for talks with dissident Fatah militiamen from the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas chose to stay away from the Gaza Strip during this week's renewed violence. His aides say he knew that he could rely on the Egyptians to resolve the crisis in a quick and efficient manner. Like many Palestinians in Gaza, Abbas was furious with Hamas over the Jabalya incident and its refusal to admit responsibility. That's why, said one of his aides, he did not rush to meet with Zahar and other Hamas leaders when the violence began.
Egypt's increasing involvement in the affairs of the Gaza Strip has prompted some Palestinians to refer to Mubarak and his intelligence chief, Suleiman, as the de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip.
"Mubarak and Suleiman have more influence in the Gaza Strip than Abu Mazen [Abbas] or any other top Palestinian official," remarked a respected Palestinian editor in Gaza City. "If the situation continues as it is, the Gaza Strip could soon be reunited with Egypt."
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