Palestinian Affairs: 'Over our dead bodies'

Hamas is feeling victorious, Fatah is fuming and Egypt is determined to get the Gazans back in Gaza.

Rafah fed up 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Rafah fed up 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Hamas leaders had every reason to laugh all the way to Cairo this week. Exactly one week after they and their supporters succeeded in tearing down the metal barrier separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt - enabling nearly half the population of Gaza to cross freely into Egyptian territory - Hamas's top leaders were being invited to Cairo for talks on ways of resolving the crisis. It was the first visit of its kind to Egypt by senior Hamas officials since last June, when the Islamist movement took full control over the Gaza Strip after defeating Mahmoud Abbas's security forces. Like most of the Arab countries, Egypt was quick to denounce the Hamas "coup" and demand that Abbas's men be allowed to return to their former posts in Gaza, including at the Rafah border crossing. To back up their demand, the Egyptians have since rejected Hamas's call to reopen the Rafah terminal on the basis of new security arrangements. Egypt's official policy remains that the terminal must be reopened in accordance with the US-brokered 2005 agreement that authorized Abbas's Presidential Guard to run it under the supervision of international monitors. Hamas, which was never happy with that agreement, is now trying to take advantage of the latest crisis along the border with Egypt to secure a new deal. As Hamas representatives explained this week, "The agreement is dead. Our people won't accept it because it allows a third party to maintain a presence at the border. The Rafah border crossing should be controlled only by Egyptians and Palestinians." Hamas, according to its spokesmen, is not opposed to the presence of Abbas loyalists at the border crossing. But, they stress, it also wants a role in controlling the border, because the Hamas government in Gaza is the legitimate government that was elected by a majority of Palestinians in January 2006. Hamas's major concern is that the return to the 2005 agreement would see the border crossing under the control of parties that don't recognize the Islamist movement's rule in the Strip. "The international monitors who were at the border were working as spies for the US and Israel," claimed a Hamas spokesman. "That means that the Israelis and Americans will have indirect control over the Rafah border crossing and will decide who can pass through it." THE EGYPTIANS, who were obviously caught unprepared for the influx of Palestinians from Gaza into their territories, have thus far avoided a public confrontation with Hamas. Abbas's aides in Ramallah were hoping that the events along the border would create a severe crisis between Hamas and the Egyptian authorities. However, the Palestinian Authority leadership was surprised to see President Hosni Mubarak invite Hamas for talks on the crisis. Moreover, Abbas was reported to have been outraged upon learning that his sworn enemy, Khaled Mashaal, had been invited to Riyadh for talks with senior Saudi government officials. Abbas's main fear is that Hamas is now trying to translate the latest border crisis into political gain. For him, the fact that Hamas leaders like Mahmoud Zahar and Khaled Mashaal are being welcomed into two of the most important Arab capitals is tantamount to recognition of Hamas's violent takeover of Gaza. In Cairo this week, Abbas used strong words to condemn Hamas, depicting its leaders as a "junta" that had staged a bloody coup against a legitimate government. Abbas wants to restore his exclusive control not only over the Rafah border crossing, but over the entire Gaza Strip. Hamas's response has thus far been along the lines of "over our dead bodies." Indeed, there is almost no reason why Hamas should soften its position. On the contrary, Hamas, in the wake of the sense of victory prevalent among its leaders in the past week, feels that it is moving in the right direction. Hamas's declared aim over the past seven months has been to end its isolation and break the blockade imposed on the Strip, including the closure of the border with Egypt. Furthermore, Hamas this week demonstrated that it continues to enjoy the support and sympathy of the Arab and Islamic masses, who took to the streets to express their backing for the Islamist movement and its campaign to end the blockade. Ironically, Hamas owes some of its growing popularity to Israel's punitive measures against Gaza, including the suspension of fuel supplies. ON THE other hand, there are no signs whatsoever that Abbas and the PA are headed toward making the slightest concession to Hamas. Given the wide gap between the two parties, some Palestinians see Hamas and Abbas's Fatah continuing their power struggle for many weeks and months to come. This is a power struggle that is likely to further consolidate the split between the West Bank and Gaza, turning them into separate entities with different regimes and agendas. The Egyptians, meanwhile, are trying to solve the crisis, regardless of whether Hamas and Fatah reach an agreement on managing the Rafah border crossing. But Cairo this week learned what the Saudis learned after the February 2007 Mecca Accord - that the differences between Hamas and Fatah are unbridgeable. That's why the Egyptians are now working on unilaterally resealing their border with Gaza, locking the gate and throwing the key into the sea. As far as Mubarak is concerned, the Gaza Strip, which has been nothing but a curse to all those who tried to govern it, should return to being Israel's problem.