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Hamas gains edge as border crisis eases

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

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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.

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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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