Palestinians feud, but Egypt and Hamas working more closely

Meeting in Cairo fails to mend the divide between President Abbas and Hamas over Gaza border.

By , Staff writer

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dug in his heels Wednesday after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to address the crisis over the Gaza border, publicly refusing to work with his Palestinian rival Hamas and calling for forces loyal to his government to take control of the border.

While his defiant tone favors the status quo – he called the Hamas seizure of the Gaza Strip last June "a coup" – it came in the face of changing realities on the ground.

Hamas and Egyptian authorities, for example, are working more closely now.

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

Across town in Cairo, senior Hamas leaders met Wednesday with Omar Suleiman, the powerful head of Egypt's intelligence services. In the border town of Rafah, Egyptian and Hamas security officials continued to work to restore order at the crossing. It was Hamas's first official visit to Cairo since June, when Mr. Mubarak criticized the Hamas takeover as hurting the chances of peace.

Some analysts had expected that the breaching of Gaza's economic isolation by Hamas-backed militants with explosives and bulldozers last week – hundreds of thousands have crossed the border to buy scarce goods since – would start forcing the divided Palestinian political factions back to the negotiating table.

Though there were no signs of a rapprochement, with leaders of both factions sniping at each other through the press, Hamas has forced a change in attitude by Egypt and some other regional states by demonstrating that with their physical control of Gaza, no solution to controlling the border is possible without them.

The US, Israel, and Mr. Abbas continue to refuse to deal with Hamas until it halts rocket fire from the Gaza Strip (in the case of the US and Israel) and hands over control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority and agrees to early elections (in the case of Mr. Abbas). But both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have reached out to the Islamist group in recent days.

In addition to the meetings with Egyptian officials, Hamas's top leader Khaled Meshaal traveled to Saudi Arabia earlier this week to hold talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on finding ways to bring the Palestinian factions back together. A Saudi government spokesman told reporters the kingdom is eager for Palestinian unity.

The Saudis brokered a power-sharing deal between Hamas and Fatah early last year, which briefly broke the deadlock that ensued after Hamas had won Palestinian elections and then unraveled when the brief civil war broke out in Gaza in June. Hamas says they are willing to enter talks with Fatah, but refuse to meet any of its conditions.

"Hamas has to go back on its coup and ... accept the legitimacy [of the Palestinian Authority], and then hearts and minds would be open for dialogue," Abbas said after meeting with Mubarak.

But Hamas is flexing its muscle over the border issue, insisting that it won't agree to border arrangements that reduce its power. "Talking about a partial role contradicts reality," said senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar. "The reality is that there is a legitimate government. We will not give up our legitimacy to anybody."

Mr. Zahar, the political mastermind behind the Gaza takeover, and who lost one of his sons in an Israeli airstrike earlier this month, said in an interview two weeks ago that Fatah's calls for early elections are "absurd."

"Fatah ruled for 15 years without an election. Then we won, and we have a full term in front of us. Why would we agree to ignore the process of democracy?"

Israel's concerns that more open borders could compromise its security were underscored on Wednesday, when Egyptian state newspaper Al-Ahram reported that five Palestinian militants had used the breach to infiltrate Egypt and were allegedly planning an attack on Israel from near the town of Al-Arish. The paper reported that the five men were arrested with explosive "suicide belts." a map of the border, and at least one sniper rifle.

Egypt, like Israel, has its own reasons for worrying about Hamas. The group is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful opposition group, and a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the government views any success for Hamas as bolstering the Brotherhood.

But Egypt understands that Hamas now has de facto control of a shared border, and its police forces have worked closely with Hamas officials in recent days to work out a new arrangement.

Daniel Levy, an Israeli who helped negotiate a peace agreement between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel in 1995 and now an analyst at the New America Foundation in Washington, argues that until the reality of Hamas's strength in Gaza is recognized, the outlook for a new peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel – something that President George Bush says he's hopeful will be reached by the end of the year – is grim.

"Abbas's ability to make peace is limited while the Palestinians are divided," Mr. Levy says. "I think the Egyptians understand that Hamas can't be ignored at this point if the goal is to find peace."

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