Hamas gains edge as border crisis eases

Palestinian militants and Egypt restored some order on the border Sunday, and Hamas gains leverage in negotiations.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

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    New Crisis: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (l.) met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Sunday during talks to limit Hamas control over Gaza's breached border with Egypt.
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    Gaps in the wall: A masked Hamas militant watched as Palestinians walked across the breached border in southern Gaza into Egypt on Sunday.
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The Gaza border crisis showed signs of easing Sunday. The militant Palestinian group Hamas, which controls the territory, encouraged Gazans to go home after hundreds of thousands had streamed across the Egyptian border in the past five days.

At the same time, Egypt tightened security in the border town of Rafah and began repairing the barriers, breached by Hamas, that separate it from the impoverished coastal strip of 1.5 million Palestinians.

But as the holes are patched, analysts say Hamas not only has broken out of its physical isolation, but is emerging with a stronger negotiating position on several fronts. "At this moment, Hamas is the only address for discussing the Egyptian-Gazan border regime. Hamas is also the only address for Israel right now to solve the practical problems of the open border. If this isn't a victory, I don't know what is," says Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University.

Recommended: Who is Hamas? 5 questions about the Palestinian militant group.

He suggested two scenarios for the fallout of the border problem. One, which he sees as a positive, is that "it could encourage four-way negotiations [between Israel, Egypt, Hamas, and Fatah] which might result in practical solutions and accommodations. But, the downside, he says, is the "worsening of the relationship between Israel and Egypt, and disempowering [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] to even claim that he even speaks for Gaza."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mr. Abbas met for more than two hours Sunday on the border issue, with Israel ultimately pledging to help ease the humanitarian situation in Gaza by resuming shipments of basic necessities such as fuel and electricity.

"The Gaza Strip events were a prominent part of the meeting, which was held in an atmosphere of joint cooperation. Both sides agree that the humanitarian aid and other supplies would continue to be serviced to the Gaza Strip," says David Baker, a spokesman for Mr. Olmert.

A precise solution to the question of how to close up the remaining holes in the wall, which expanded over the weekend as Palestinians drove bulldozers through the opening to flatten the area and allow more cars to go through, was not discussed, Mr. Baker says. That will be the focus of a meeting expected to be held Wednesday between Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Olmert said after meeting Abbas that Israel would continue to act against Hamas in Gaza, but would not allow a major humanitarian crisis to develop there.

His hand, however, was all but forced when, earlier Sunday, Israel's High Court of Justice ruled that, effective immediately, the fuel supply to the Gaza Strip must be restored. The decision was forced by the appeals of two Israeli human rights groups. The groups said that even the court's ruling to supply 2.2 million liters of fuel per week was a figure that still falls short of what Gazans need.

Though something like the old status quo on the border appears to be in the process of being reasserted, Hamas did allow scarce goods to flow into the territory and shown itself capable of forcing an alternative economic lifeline open when Israel turns off the spigot on its border.

Yossi Alpher, editor of Bitterlemons.org, says that Hamas has an opportunity to break out of its diplomatic isolation because it now calls the shots on the border. Specifically, it now has a lever to cause friction between Israel and Egypt. "The fact is that there is tension between Israel and Egypt, and this is what Hamas would like to exploit."

The Fatah movement, Hamas's rival in the West Bank, also appears to be being pushed toward talking with Hamas, which forced it out of control of Gaza last June. A Hamas official in Gaza, Sami Zuhri, told reporters over the weekend that Egypt would like to negotiate new border arrangements with both Fatah and Hamas, something he said his group is willing to participate in. Abbas, however, has been adamant about not holding direct talks with Hamas.

Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamic movements and regional politics in Cairo, says the forcing open of the border has pierced the consensus that prevailed among the Egyptians, Israelis, and the US after the Annapolis, Md., peace conference at the end of last year – that isolating Hamas was still the way forward.

"The Israelis miscalculated. They thought besieging and isolating Hamas would help Abbas, but the outcome has been the reverse," he says. "We're in a new phase, and Hamas has been strengthened. Now the Egyptian government is offering to bring Hamas and Fatah together under its sponsorship, because that's where Egypt's national interest now lies."

He says it's unlikely that Hamas, aware of the friendlier Egyptian attitude, will force more border confrontations. "The Israelis were giving all of their attention to Abbas until now, but everyone forgot that a third of his people were being ignored in Gaza. Now the support of the Arab public is with those people, Egypt hasn't cut its channels with Hamas, and Hamas understands that Egypt is willing to negotiate."

Over the weekend, as Egyptian police struggled to force back Palestinians flowing into the border town of Al-Arish, leading to clashes, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak held out the possibility of bringing the leadership of Fatah and Hamas to Cairo to reach some solution to the crisis. Abbas, however, was quick to reject that suggestion and said that he would only meet Hamas if they were to reverse the violent coup they staged in Gaza last June. "Hamas has committed a crime against the Palestinian people and their unity and dream," Abbas said in a speech over the weekend. "But Hamas is part of the Palestinian people. We can't ignore them, and they can't ignore us."

Abbas and other Fatah leaders have suggested that control of the border crossings between Egypt and Gaza should be turned over to the Palestinian Authority's police forces, who would work under the aegis of international monitors. But it remains deeply uncertain that any such framework could take place without some level of cooperation between Fatah and Hamas, which Fatah officials – with strong encouragement from Israel and the US – have so far rejected.

Joshua Mitnick contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.

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