Alaa Shahine
January 30, 2008 - 5:40pm

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas began crisis talks with Egypt on Wednesday about restoring order at the breached Gaza border, facing a challenge from his Hamas rivals for control of the frontier.

Hamas Islamists, who seized control of Gaza in June after routing Abbas's secular Fatah forces, blasted open the Egyptian border last week in defiance of an Israeli blockade, letting Gazans pour into Egypt to stock up on goods in short supply.

Abbas, who met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other officials, has already won U.S., European and Arab backing to take control of the Rafah crossing, to the exclusion of Hamas.

Hamas officials were also expected to meet Egyptian officials on Wednesday.

"We have international support," Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo said. "Hamas should stay out of this."

Shunned by the West for refusing to renounce violence against Israel after winning Palestinian elections two years ago, Hamas signaled it could prevent Egypt from re-sealing the border unless its own authority at the border was recognized.

"Talking about a partial role contradicts reality," said senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar as he crossed through the Rafah border terminal into Egypt to take part in talks on the future of the border.

"The reality is that there is a legitimate government. We will not give up our legitimacy to anybody," he said.

It is unclear how Abbas, the Fatah leader, would be able to exert control over Rafah given opposition from Hamas, whose forces have command on the ground.

Meanwhile, Egyptian state media reported that Egypt was planning to take steps shortly to start to close the border.

One state-run newspaper said Egypt planned to close the border on Thursday, and the flagship al-Ahram paper said the last opportunity for Gazans to return home would be at the start of next week.


Hamas sought on Wednesday to make the case that it could manage the Rafah crossing itself. It allowed television cameras and reporters into the terminal to watch Zahar and other Hamas leaders get their passports stamped by Hamas border guards.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said Hamas "does not accept anything less than a key role in the Rafah crossing."

Hamas politburo member Izzat al-Rishq said Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who is leading the Hamas delegation to Egypt, was expected to arrive in Cairo shortly to meet officials.

"A meeting with President Abbas is unlikely. The other side views it as too much of a compromise, although Hamas has no problem with such a meeting," Rishq said in the Syrian capital.

"The schedule is not finalized, but Abu al-Waleed (Meshaal) doesn't normally meet with President Mubarak," Rishq added.

Israel signaled on Tuesday it would not stand in the way of Abbas taking control of Gaza's border with Egypt, but officials expressed doubt that Abbas's forces could stand up to Hamas's.

Under heavy international pressure to ease its cordon, Israel has allowed European-funded fuel to reach Gaza's main power plant, but the main U.N. aid agency said it was running out of meat for nearly one million Palestinians in Gaza.

Gaza border crossings have emerged as the main battleground in a power struggle between Hamas and Abbas, whose authority has been limited to the Israeli-occupied West Bank since June.

Abbas has proposed taking over all crossings, including those with Israel. Hamas sees the effort as part of a campaign to limit its power.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017