Hamas offers Egypt talks on restoring Gaza border

GAZA – Hamas offered on Saturday to restore the Gaza Strip’s ruptured border with Egypt through direct diplomacy with Cairo, challenging a plan by rival Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to assume control.

Egypt is under pressure to seal the border that fell on Wednesday as needy Palestinians surged across, but is reluctant to be seen as shoring up a 7-month-old blockade imposed on Gaza to cripple its Hamas rulers while Abbas seeks peace with Israel.

“We are offering an alternative, which is the operation of Rafah crossing, and we are ready to coordinate this with the Egyptian government,” senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told reporters, referring to a key terminal at a frontier town.

“The situation at the Rafah border is temporary and exceptional.”

A Hamas source said free movement across Rafah “is expected to last as long as it takes for an understanding to be reached between Hamas and the Egyptian government over the reoperation”.

Abbas has said he had a plan for assuming control of Gaza’s border crossings that would relieve the clampdown which followed Hamas’s rout of his forces in the coastal territory last June.

Abbas, whose mandate is now effectively reduced to the occupied West Bank, said he would urge Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to accept his offer at a summit on Sunday meant to advance peacemaking.

Israeli officials said Olmert opposed the idea.

But even if Israel were to agree, it is unclear how Abbas would take over the crossings without the consent of Hamas, which has shown its ability to prevent Egyptian efforts to re-seal the border at Rafah.

U.S. and Israeli officials doubt Abbas’s security forces are strong enough to take control of the crossings unless Hamas, an Islamist group shunned by the West for refusing to give up its fight against the Jewish state, agrees to their deployment.

While Abbas and his government have stepped up public calls for the blockade to be lifted, U.N., European and other Western officials say Hamas’s opponents within Abbas’s Fatah have been behind-the-scenes backers of keeping the crossings closed.

Hamas openly accuses Abbas and his West Bank-based government of supporting the closures on Gaza to try to undermine Hamas’s public standing among the territory’s 1.5 million residents. Abbas and his government deny this.

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