Status quo hard to restore on Gaza-Egypt border

CAIRO – The Islamist movement Hamas blew a hole in the Egyptian government’s policy on the border with the Gaza Strip when it knocked down the border wall and let tens of thousands of Palestinians pour into Egypt.

The Egyptian government cannot now restore the status quo on the border without some concessions to the Hamas demand for an open crossing point free of Israeli supervision, analysts say.

Since Hamas took control of Gaza in June, Egypt has cooperated with the U.S. and Israeli policy of sealing off the densely populated strip of Palestinian territory, in an attempt to turn the population against the Islamists.

But the policy faced widespread disgust inside Egypt, where people saw the government as doing Israel’s dirty work against the Palestinians, and the destruction of the wall on Wednesday suggests that the policy was not sustainable.

Israel raised the stakes on Thursday by advocating complete disengagement from Gaza, which would throw all the problems on Egyptian shoulders. Egypt would strongly resist such a move for economic and security reasons.

For the moment Egyptian security forces have stood aside as Palestinians go shopping in the towns of northern Sinai, stocking up on goods which had become scarce in Gaza.

“The view of the Egyptian government is that there is no way they were going to fire at Palestinian civilians crossing the border. Besides, the police were simply overwhelmed,” said a senior diplomat who specializes in Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

So far the Egyptian government has given few clues to its intentions. President Mubarak said the Palestinians could come and buy food, provided they go home and do not bear arms.

But Mubarak is wary of too much contact with Gaza because of the close ties between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry has proposed that Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority take a new look at how to reactivate the border agreement they reached when Israel withdrew from the border strip in 2005.

A ministry spokesman said on Thursday that Egypt would have no comment on the disengagement idea, suggested by Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai.

Egypt is sympathetic to a proposal that the Palestinian Authority take charge of the Gaza side of the border, possibly cutting Israel out of the equation. The authority is based in the West Bank, has no control over Gaza and is dominated by Fatah, Hamas’s Palestinian rival.

“MORE FLEXIBLE”

Political analyst Mohamed el-Sayed Said said Egyptian police would eventually reimpose normal border controls at Rafah, the only crossing point into Egypt, as they did in 2005.

Tens of thousands of Gazans broke into Egypt then after the Israeli withdrawal. The Egyptians left them alone for several days, before gradually herding them back into Gaza.

“But what has happened will force the Egyptians to be more flexible. They will allow people to come in and out,” added Said, who is deputy director of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a Cairo think tank.

“Hamas has managed to impose a new situation and remind Egypt that it can’t seal the border indefinitely and hope the problem will just go away,” added Ezzedin Choukri, the director of the Arab-Israeli project at the International Crisis Group.

If Israel, with or without Egyptian help, squeezes Gaza too hard again, Hamas can arrange another exodus into Egypt, with impunity and with international sympathy, the analysts said.

Some commentators outside the Middle East said the collapse of the Gaza border meant a complete break with past policy.

“Who can reimpose order on the Gaza-Egypt situation? Israel? I doubt it. Egypt? Very risky indeed. Fatah without coordinating with Hamas? Impossible. A hastily assembled NATO peacekeeping force? Forget about it,” wrote Helena Cobban, a writer who travels in the region and meets top leaders.

“This is, it strikes me, Hamas’s bid to become included in the decision-making order. I truly don’t see any resolution to the present situation without Hamas being a party,” she added.

But other analysts noted that Egypt does already have contacts with Hamas and said that its security forces can restore order along the border without outside help.

The bigger challenge for Egypt would come if Israel succeeded in washing its hands of Gaza, which was controlled by Egypt until being occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.

Egypt would vehemently oppose any such attempt, mostly for economic and security reasons. After making peace with Israel in 1979, it does not want to be stuck right in the middle of conflict between Hamas and Israel.

Choukri said that permanently severing Gaza’s links with Israel and the West Bank would have massive implications, not least for the fragile Gazan economy.

“There is nothing the Gazan economy can export to Egypt, because of the high costs. It would be totally dependent on aid,” he added.

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