Palestinians cool to Egyptian bid to reengage in Gaza

After Hamas attacks, Israel launches a Gaza crackdown.

Egyptian plans to bring stability to Gaza - if and when Israel withdraws from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip - are running up against stiff resistance at the bargaining table and on the ground.

The latest complication: renewed Israeli-Palestinian fighting in the crowded coastal enclave.

Only days after Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to push the Egyptian initiative, Israeli tanks have now closed off roads in the northern Gaza Strip to mark the start of a military operation. The current Israeli crackdown follows a deadly Hamas rocket attack on the Israeli town of Sderot and a Hamas demolition of an Israeli army outpost near Khan Yunis.

Mr. Suleiman has thus far not consulted with Hamas leaders on the Egyptian plan, but the Islamic Resistance Movement seems to be making clear that its voice will be audible through guns and rockets.

"Hamas attacks are continuing without considering the political developments, and Hamas is saying it will continue its attacks everywhere. There is no stopping the attacks," says Ghazi Hamed, editor of the Hamas-affiliated Al Risala newspaper in Gaza.

While the Palestinian Authority is welcoming renewed Egyptian involvement in the Strip - Egypt ruled Gaza from 1948 to 1967 - Hamas and other Palestinian opposition factions so far have rejected Cairo's plans to dispatch 200 military advisers to train the Palestinian security forces. "Our message to Egypt is don't help Sharon in implementing his plan," says Qaid al-Ghoul of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Egypt agrees that Israel should withdraw from Gaza, but beyond that the two sides haven't yet settled on much. The Israeli plan envisions continued Israeli control of a southern border corridor and of all land, sea, and air exits from the Strip, and gives Israel the right to send tanks back into Gaza. Egypt's plan calls for guarantees that the Israeli military will desist from operations in Gaza. It envisions the reopening of Gaza International Airport and the opening of a port in Gaza City that could have links with Egypt's Port Said.

Israeli's Prime Minister Sharon is aware of the discrepancies and says he's concerned about Egypt's stated political objective of renewing Israeli peace talks with the Palestinian Authority after an Israeli withdrawal - in accordance with the international peace blueprint known as the road map. Sharon sees "great importance" in an Egyptian security role in Gaza, according to an Israeli official quoted in local media. But Sharon said Israel will not allow Egypt to become a mediator between it and the PA.

While the US is likely to be the final arbiter of which vision prevails, Hamas and the PFLP are stressing that Cairo has no leverage to ensure that Israel will meet any of its demands.

"We don't need Egyptian security training in Gaza because the Palestinian Authority has good experience in arresting people," says Mr. Hamed in a jibe at the PA's 1996 security crackdown against Hamas after a series of bombings of Israeli targets. "Egypt is ... giving Sharon political legitimacy for a unilateral withdrawal."

Mr. Ghoul warns that Egypt's initiative will advance Mr. Sharon's goal of continuing settlement expansion, construction of the separation barrier, and annexation of parts of the West Bank, while international attention is focused on Gaza. "Whatever the Egyptians say, the cards remain in Israel's hands.... It is our duty to ensure that all Palestinians contribute in one national struggle to confront the Israeli occupation."

The Palestinian Authority, for its part, dismisses the opposition's suspicions. "At a time when the US, the country leading the international community in sponsoring the peace process, is busy with its own election and involved directly in another conflict in the region, the Egyptian role becomes a necessity," Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib wrote in Monday's edition of the Internet magazine Bitter Lemons. But the Egyptian initiative also includes a bitter pill for Yasser Arafat: demanding that he streamline security forces and hand over some control over them to prime minister Ahmed Qurei.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher says Egypt will press ahead with its plan. But some analysts in Cairo are already warning that Egyptian involvement could boomerang. "Once an Egyptian is shot that will inflame the public opinion in Egypt and put us on a collision track with the Palestinian national movement" says Mohammed al-Sayed Said of the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Material from the wire services was used in this report.

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