Dina Ezzat
Al- Ahram (Opinion)
April 22, 2008 - 6:03pm

Quiet prevails on the border between Egypt and Gaza, for now. Below the surface, however, tension between Egypt and Hamas is seething. Statements made by Hamas spokesmen last week about a potential replay of January's mass breakout of ordinary Palestinians over the border "inevitably" led to a firm Egyptian response, threatening "a harsh reaction" while beefing up visible security on the border.

By Wednesday, Cairo's fears, high at the weekend, about a potential breakout and its political and humanitarian consequences were somewhat relaxed. "But we are still on standby," insisted one Egyptian official. For its part, Hamas is not ruling out a possible breach of the border. It would be, the movement says, a simple reaction of 1.5 million Palestinians to suffocation via siege. Hamas appeals for Egyptian assistance rather than its fury, spokesmen say.

In a recent briefing attended by Al-Ahram Weekly, the Damascus-based deputy chairman of Hamas's politburo, Moussa Aboumarzouk, insisted that it is not in the interest of Hamas to undermine Egyptian national security. "We want to work with, not anger Egypt. This is in our interest and it is in the interest of the Egyptians as well," he said.

Today in Cairo for talks with US former President Jimmy Carter on the chances of Middle East peace, Hamas leaders Said Siyyam and Mahmoud Al-Zahhar will discuss the border issue with top Egyptian security officials. "We want nothing to come between the Palestinian and Egyptian people," Siyyam said in press statements ahead of his mission. The Hamas delegation is expected to appeal for Egypt to open and operate the Rafah crossing that links Gaza with Egypt. Egypt has rejected a yearlong Hamas request that it do so independently of Israel and the international community.

For the crossing to open and operate, Egypt insists, Hamas, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel must reach a deal. Specifically, Cairo insists that Hamas accepts to allow the PA to operate the crossing in cooperation with Israel and a EU monitoring mission in accordance with a US-brokered 2005 border agreement. "Let Hamas and the Palestinian Authority agree and Egypt will do its best," Egypt's ambassador in Washington, Nabil Fahmi, said Tuesday.

According to Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere, director of the International Crisis Group (ICG) Arab-Israeli Peace Project, Palestinian national reconciliation is crucial, not just for the immediate purposes of handling the situation on the ground -- in Gaza and on the border with Egypt -- but also to solidify the Palestinian position in negotiations with Israel. The ICG warns that the current melange of siege, military attacks and political isolation of Hamas in Gaza is the wrong recipe for promoting stability and peacemaking between "all the Palestinians and Israel".

"If you exclude and pressure Hamas then you get Hamas to attempt to spoil whatever you are doing," Choukri-Fishere states. "And this Hamas could do in many ways." Choukri-Fishere believes that the only way to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and prevent a damaging split of Gaza away from the West Bank is by engaging Hamas.

But is it possible to engage Hamas and secure Palestinian national reconciliation while shunning Hamas's regional allies, Syria, Hizbullah and Iran? And to what extent are current Hamas-Egypt tensions a manifestation of the regional tug of war between US supported and assigned "moderates" and US targeted and maligned "extremists"?

In Qatar on Monday for a conference on Middle East democracy, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called on Arab states to include Israel as a moderate at war with extremism. "We, the moderates of the region, are all the members of the same camp, facing the same challenges posed by the extremists," she said.

In Bahrain next Monday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will convene with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the six-Arab Gulf Cooperation Council to discuss precisely this issue: the continued confrontation between "moderates" and "extremists" in the Middle East. Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran perceive this "6+2+1" umbrella group as a mechanism aimed at isolating them.

Choukri-Fishere agrees that in order to understand current Hamas-Egypt tensions the wider regional context must be brought into focus. He in particular advocates engaging Syria. The ICG analyst believes, however, that Hamas can do much more -- and should -- to assuage Egyptian fears. "A substantial part [of the problem] has to do with Egypt and Hamas [alone]," he said.

Judging by accounts given by Egyptian officials, the policy of wider engagement is not yet ripe for consumption by Cairo or its major allies, especially Riyadh. This week, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia turned down an offer for talks with Syria, as presented by Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri who believes that such a three-way conference is essential for ending Lebanon's enduring political crisis.

On the other hand, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are also cautious about Washington's eagerness that the upcoming Bahrain meeting adopt an uncompromising stand relative to Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah. Egyptian sources say that Cairo and Riyadh, albeit at different levels, are trying to contain US conflict with Iran in Bahrain.

It is unclear whether this policy of avoiding confrontation while avoiding engagement will further regional stability and the chances of peace.


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