Egypt has imposed severe restrictions on Hamas officials crossing into the country, sources close to Hamas told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. Israeli defense officials said the decision to impose the restrictions was part of a general Egyptian "crackdown" on Hamas, which also included increased efforts to prevent weapons smuggling from Sinai into the Gaza Strip.
Many Hamas officials who traveled abroad through the Rafah border crossing over the past few months have complained that they were delayed for several hours on the Egyptian side of the border. The restrictions have created a crisis between Egypt and Hamas, whose leaders accused Cairo of humiliating senior Hamas leaders.
The officials said Egyptian security officers forced them to wait for several hours at the Rafah border crossing and the Al-Arish Airport. One of them, legislator Mushir Al-Masri, was detained by Egyptian intelligence officers after they discovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in his bags. At least five other Hamas officials have been briefly detained and questioned by the Egyptians over their role in smuggling cash into the Gaza Strip.
Muhammad Awad, secretary-general of the Hamas-led coalition, was last week delayed for four hours by Egyptian intelligence officers at the Rafah terminal. He was allowed to fly from the Al-Arish Airport only after the intervention of senior Palestinian officials in Ramallah.
"Many Hamas officials have stopped traveling through the Rafah border crossing for fear that they would be harassed by the Egyptians," the sources said. "Senior Hamas leaders have also been humiliated by the Egyptians, who hold them sometimes for hours or days at Cairo Airport or other border crossings."
The sources told the Post that the Egyptian government recently notified Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas that any Hamas member who wanted to enter Egypt would be required to meet three conditions: To refrain from contacting representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; to reduce the number of bodyguards and assistants accompanying Hamas leaders and ministers; and to refrain from holding press conferences or seminars on Egyptian soil.
Hamas representatives in the Gaza Strip described the conditions as "extremely humiliating." One of them commented: "Egypt is treating us as if we were a hostile party. These conditions are designed to humiliate us. How can the Egyptians treat Fatah members as VIPs, while we are regarded as an enemy?"
Haniyeh and other Hamas officials met last week with Gen. Hammad Burhan, a top Egyptian intelligence officer based in Gaza City, and expressed their outrage over Egypt's anti-Hamas stance. They demanded that Egypt cancel all measures against Hamas and stop harassing its members when they entered the country. Moreover, the Hamas leaders denied allegations that they were coordinating their moves and policies with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Israeli defense officials said that the restrictions were in line with Egypt's new policy to crack down on Hamas and to try and prevent weapons smuggling through tunnels into Gaza.
"Egypt is doing more to stop the Hamas military buildup in the Gaza Strip," a senior defense official said. "They have realized that Hamas is not only a threat to Israel but also a threat to Egypt as well as the stability of the region."
Meanwhile Sunday, Hamas terror chiefs called for a fresh wave of attacks against Israel after troops killed three Palestinian gunmen Sunday, bringing the weekend death toll to nine.
"The blood of our people is not cheap," a Hamas statement said, inviting Palestinians of every ideological stripe to unite and "use all possible means of resistance and to respond to the massacres."
Fatah also called for measures against Israel. "The Arab and the Palestinian leadership should evaluate the contacts with Olmert's government and reconsider these contacts and meetings," Fatah spokesman Abu Hakim Alwad said at a news conference in Gaza. "Israel is sabotaging the efforts made by the president to maintain calm and to strengthen the cease-fire."
IDF troops on Sunday morning shot and killed a Palestinian youth near Ramallah as he prepared to throw a Molotov cocktail at soldiers. Overnight Saturday, a soldier was lightly wounded by gunfire during arrest operations in Nablus, as troops killed two Aksa Martyrs Brigades operatives in the city.
The two terrorists, one a top bombmaker, were killed in the casbah marketplace after IDF troops surrounded a building where they were hiding and ordered people out. Most occupants left the building, but the two operatives remained holed up inside. Clashes erupted and the two men were killed. Palestinians said the dead included Amin Lubadi, a bombmaker who had been wanted by the IDF for more than three years.
Palestinian officials said one of the dead was a 17-year-old girl shot by troops as she stood at the window of her home. The army said its soldiers had returned fire at a gunman in a window, but said the incident was being investigated.
Meanwhile, Hizbullah's deputy leader said Sunday that UN-mediated negotiations to secure a prisoner swap between his organization and Israel are going on in a "serious" manner, but so far there have been no results.
Sheikh Naim Kassem also stressed that the two IDF soldiers would be freed only in exchange for freedom of all Lebanese prisoners held in Israel.
"The negotiations are serious and when they reach any result, it will be announced, because we have agreed not to announce details of the negotiations to secure their success and to keep them away from political and media blackmail," Kassem said.
Kassem hoped that the indirect negotiations between Israel and Hizbullah would end "quickly and in a better way," stressing that all Lebanese prisoners must be freed in any deal.
"We are committed to this slogan regardless of the patience and sacrifices we endure. We are confident that the Israelis will eventually comply," he said.
Kassem was speaking at a Hizbullah rally in a mosque in Beirut's war-devastated southern suburbs to mark the 28th anniversary of Samir Kantar's captivity in Israel. Kantar is serving a 542-year prison sentence in Israel for killing three Israelis during an attack in 1979 and is one of four men who Hizbullah demands be released by Israel.
Israel says it will not release Kantar until it receives information about Ron Arad, an air force navigator who went missing after his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. His fate is unknown.
AP contributed to this report.