Egypt and Jordan quietly back Abbas, too
Arab governments worry that if Gazans starve, public support may swing behind Hamas.
Amman, Jordan, and Rafah, Egypt — – The creation of separate Palestinian micro-states last week left two of America's closest Arab allies – Jordan and Egypt, which share borders with the West Bank and Gaza respectively – groping for a new policy toward a conflict that has spilled over their borders and contributes to their own instability.
These two secular and authoritarian states have far more in common with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah, which now controls the West Bank, than with the Islamist Hamas that won last week's war for control of Gaza. When Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006 that were deemed free and fair, it set alarm bells ringing in Cairo and Amman; they worried their local Islamists would be bolstered by Hamas's success.
But that doesn't mean Egypt or Jordan will quickly join the US and Israel in openly supporting Mr. Abbas.
The US and Israel are rewarding Abbas – far friendlier to Israel than Hamas – in the West Bank by lifting a crippling economic embargo, while maintaining the sanctions on the much poorer Gaza Strip. Their hope is that Hamas's public support will evaporate under the weight of need, and Abbas's stature will grow as his people experience relatively more prosperity.
"Our hope is that President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – who's a good fellow – will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction," President George Bush said after an Oval Office meeting Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
While that's an outcome that the Egyptian and Jordanian governments hope for, given their hostility toward Hamas, it's not one they feel they can back publicly, analysts say.
"Recent events have seen Arab publics turn on Hamas a bit, but that won't necessarily hold," says Nabil Gheishan, a columnist at Arab al-Yom, an independent Jordanian daily newspaper. "If this embargo of Gaza goes ahead, and people see massive suffering there while conditions improve in the West Bank, that will shift the public mood and take the pressure off Hamas."
He says publicly backing such an approach could easily see the governments of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah branded as participating with Israeli and US-inflicted suffering on the Palestinians in Gaza.
Neither country's leaders have suggested that freezing Hamas out of the equation will make an eventual peace settlement any easier, because they doubt that Hamas's support from hundreds of thousands of Palestinians is simply going to disappear.
"For Jordan and the Arab states, things have to return to where they were. We need a reunited Palestinian government, a unity government that includes Hamas. I personally am against what Hamas stands for – religious government – but you simply can't get far towards peace without them," says Mr. Gheishan
For the moment, the two states, as well as Saudi Arabia, which helped broker the unity government that Abbas dissolved after last week's fighting, have confined their public statements to calls for Palestinian unity and the flow of humanitarian aid to all needy Palestinians, whether they live in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip or in the West Bank of Fatah.
But privately they appear to be positioning themselves to weaken Hamas. The Arab-language newspaper Al Hayat cited unnamed sources as saying Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Sulaiman, who has coordinated Egyptian relations in the Gaza Strip, called Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to tell him Egypt was "furious" with the group.
Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the major political opposition group in both Jordan and Egypt.
"The [Jordanian] government is very anxious and worried, but they are in fact in a much stronger position than they were a few years ago," says Musa Shteiwi, the director of the Jordanian Center for Social Research in Amman.
In an April poll by his organization, 17 percent of Jordanians said they supported the country's Islamists, but that was down from 32 percent in 2005, he said. He says that while most of the shift was due to terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda-inspired militants here, he suspects that "Hamas conduct since coming to power has also played a role."
Perhaps bolstering his analysis has been the stance of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood. In a statement Monday, the group, which typically offers four-square support to its Palestinian comrades, was directly critical.
"Abbas is the legitimate Palestinian president and Hamas's battle should be with the Zionist enemy, not other Palestinians, so we ask them to return to a policy of dialogue and to restore the institutions in Gaza," the statement says.
To be sure, Egypt and Jordan are not identically threatened by current circumstances. "It's easier for us, since Gaza isn't on our border," says Gheishan. "It's more of an Egyptian problem."
Signs of that problem were visible a few miles west of the Rafah Crossing, which connects Gaza to Egypt. Standing a few meters from a crumbling concrete wall, Abdel Razaq Abdel Hamid is trying to explain how bad conditions are across the border in Gaza, when a deafening blast cuts him off.
The explosion was apparently the latest attempt to breach the wall that seals off the teeming territory from Egypt. "The Palestinians bomb the border to come here – because there is no water, no food [in Gaza]," he says. "If the US and Europe want to punish [someone] they must punish Hamas, not these people," says Mr. Abdel Hamid.
Israel has closed all the Gaza border crossings. But on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Israel let in the first food aid shipment from the UN World Food Program – 10 truckloads of food and two trucks carrying medical supplies. The WFP ordinarily feeds 250,000 Gazans. Shlomo Dror, an Israeli military spokesman, says aid would continue to flow barring Hamas "interference."