What Egypt's unrest could mean for Hamas

Both Israel and Palestinian Authority officials fear the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt might prompt Cairo to ease access to Gaza, and help Hamas consolidate its rule there.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor
Protesters react after Egyptian President Mubarak announces that he will not run for reelection, but will not step down as current president, in Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 1. Protesters screamed anti-government chants and held up their shoes as a sign of discontent.

As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's grip on power slipped this week, Israelis and Palestinians are sizing up what a change in government in Cairo may mean for the Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority officials fear the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt might prompt Cairo to ease access to Gaza, and help Hamas consolidate its rule there.

Egypt has the keys to Gaza's only border not controlled by Israel. That leaves President Mubarak's successor, whoever it may be, with the option to open up the stifled territory of 1.5 million to trade and civilian traffic, or to continue the restrictions that weigh on the economy and the Islamic militant government there.

While the first option would win Egypt popularity with the Arab public throughout the Middle East and boost Hamas, it would signal a break in Israel's critical alliance with Cairo. It could also tip the scales in favor of Hamas in the three-year rift between Hamas and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

“It's a very sensitive point,” says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

“The current Egyptian regime has a strong interest in preventing the Hamas-controlled regime from moving into Egypt,” says Professor Steinberg. “There is an Israeli concern that a different government – an Islamic based government – would allow much more freedom of movement and terrorists across the border.”

To get around the restrictions, a network of Hamas-controlled subterranean tunnels has developed under the border to funnel weapons and fill demand for consumer goods and essentials such as fuel. Spokespeople already say that Gaza is feeling the pinch of a gas shortage, because supplies through the Sinai have been frozen.

A new Egyptian government would also have to decide on whether to continue enforcing policy battling the smugglers. In the first days of the Cairo protests, there were reports of stepped up smuggling at the border, reflecting Israel's concerns.

Hamas, trying to avoid looking as if they are exploiting the chaos, denied the reports. While Gaza has come to depend on commercial goods from the tunnels, recent smuggling has also helped Hamas rearm with rockets after fighting a three-and-a-half week war with Israel two years ago.

Hamas wants commercial crossing

Currently only pedestrians are permitted to cross the border, but Hamas says it hopes that Egypt will eventually agree to establish a commercial crossing.

“We are hoping to have a direct contact with the world through commerce with Egypt,'' says Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar. “Everybody is looking for that because their goods are so much cheaper.”

But Mr. Zahar might have to wait. In the past, Egypt has resisted calls from Israel to establish commercial trade links with Gaza for fear of becoming responsible for providing basic goods for the impoverished territory. Currently, the international community calls Israel to task for the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Over the weekend, Hamas deployed forces along the border, amid reports that Egyptian police stations in Sinai were being overrun by members of the Bedouin ethnic group. That has Egypt recalling a 2008 border crisis, when frustrated Palestinians breached the Egyptian border compound at Rafa.

The difference now is that Hamas wants to prove it is responsible enough to avoid stirring a border crisis.

“We want the border to be safe,” says Zahar.

But in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, there is already fear that a loosened situation at the border with Egypt will end up allowing in weapons to be targeted at Israel.

“Even though relations are pretty good,” says Osher Amar, a truck driver. “I think we should be a afraid.''

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