Arab World: The Egypt-Hamas collision course

Hamas representatives who visited Cairo in Novemberand December for talks on a possible prisoner exchange agreement withIsrael and reconciliation with the rival Fatah faction asked governmentofficials about the nature of the construction work that had beentaking place for several weeks along the border between the Gaza Stripand Sinai.

The Egyptians, according to one of the Hamasrepresentatives, sought to allay the group's concerns by assuring themthat this was only routine "engineering" work.

Hamas's suspicions regarding Egypt's true intentions grew whenPalestinians living on the Egyptian side of the border were told bysome of the laborers employed in the project that it was actually aimedat building an underground steel wall.

"The workers said that Egyptian security officers had warnedthem against talking to anyone about the project," said a Hamaslegislator in the Gaza Strip. "The Egyptian authorities were evidentlyconcerned about how the wall would be perceived in the Arab and Islamicworld and that's why they wanted to build it without drawingattention."

Seeking to embarrass the Egyptians and exertpressure on them to halt the construction of the barrier, Hamas has inthe past three weeks managed to mobilize major media outlets in theArab and Islamic world against the project.

Hamas began organizing tours for local and foreign journalistsand photographers to the Palestinian side of the border so that theycould see with their own eyes the "engineering" work. Al-Jazeera, theArab world's most popular TV network, which has long beenextraordinarily sympathetic toward Hamas, took upon itself the missionof depicting the Egyptians as being part of a US-Israeli conspiracy to"strangle" the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Al-Jazeerahas since dedicated many of its popular programs to live debates aboutthe controversial wall, providing a free platform to almost anyonewilling to condemn the Egyptian regime and President Hosni Mubarak. Thecontroversy over the wall has even divided the most prominent scholarsof the Islamic world, triggering a "war of fatwas" in favor of andagainst the project.

Hamas officials are convinced that Mubarak decided to build thewall not only under pressure from the US and Israel, but also to punishthe movement for its negative position on the issues of reconciliationwith Fatah and the case of IDF soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit. Theyalso insist there is no justification for the building of the steelwall, because Hamas has never posed a threat to Egypt's nationalsecurity.

"When Egypt talks about a threat to its so-called nationalsecurity, it's actually talking about a threat to its regime," arguedProf. Abdul Sattar Kassem, a West Bank academic and Hamas supporter."Egypt anyway has limited self-rule in Sinai because of the Camp DavidAccords, which prevent the Egyptians from having a large militarypresence there."

He and other pro-Hamas spokesmen categorically dismiss claimsthat the Egyptians are worried that Hamas would smuggle weapons intoEgypt with the purpose of undermining the regime.

"It's true that we don't like Mubarak's regime, but we are nottrying to occupy Cairo," said a Hamas legislator in the Gaza Strip."Our conflict is with the Israeli enemy, not Egypt or any other Arabcountry."

According to the legislator and several other Hamas spokesmen,the Egyptians are seeking to "punish" Hamas for its refusal to sign anEgyptian-brokered reconciliation accord with Fatah in Cairo lastOctober.

Hamas cancelled its participation in the signing ceremony atthe last minute to protest Palestinian Authority President MahmoudAbbas's decision not to back a resolution in the UN Human RightsCouncil that would have condemned Israel for allegedly perpetrating"war crimes" during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas boycott is said to have enraged Mubarak, who washoping to score points among Arabs and Muslims for succeeding where theSaudis, Yemenis and other Arabs had failed, namely in ending the powerstruggle between Hamas and Fatah.

RELATIONS BETWEEN Cairo and Hamas had already been strainedover the case of Schalit. For the past three years the Egyptians havebeen trying, thus far unsuccessfully, to negotiate a deal between Hamasand Israel to release the soldier in return for several hundredPalestinians held in Israeli jails.

Late last year Hamas decided to substitute the Egyptians with asenior German diplomat, who is now acting as the main mediator. TheHamas decision to dump the Egyptians in favor of the German is alsosaid to have angered Mubarak and his General Intelligence chief, OmarSuleiman, who was personally involved in attempts to persuade Israeland Hamas to agree to a prisoner swap.

A Hamas-Fatah reconciliation accord and a Hamas-Israel prisonerexchange deal would have bolstered the standing of Mubarak's regime inthe local, regional and international arenas. Mubarak was hoping toreestablish Egypt's role as the Arab world's most influential country,but Hamas has clearly destroyed his dream.

The anti-wall campaign in the Arab media, as well asPalestinian demonstrations against what has become known on as the"wall of shame," has caused severe damage to the Egyptian regime'sreputation throughout Arab and Islamic countries, where Mubarak isbeing dubbed a pawn in the hands of the US and Israel. This, of course,does not help his dream of having his son, Gamal, succeed him aspresident.

The new steel wall has put Egypt on a collision course withHamas, whose supporters are now promising to escalate their campaign tostop the "engineering" work along the border. Palestinians in the GazaStrip said this week that increased pressure on Hamas could force themovement to make every possible effort to tear down the undergroundbarrier, including the use of explosives.

With increasing tensions and skirmishes along the border, Egypt could one day be forced to launch its own Operation Cast Lead.