Media Mention of Ghaith al-Omari in The Washington Post - January 3, 2008 - 1:00am

CAIRO, Egypt – Egypt opened its main crossing into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to allow more than 2,000 Palestinian pilgrims – including at least one official of the armed Hamas movement – to return to their homes there, outraging Israel in a growing dispute over border security.

The return followed a month of increasingly bitter words between the two neighbors over Egypt's policing of its border with Gaza, which Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni last month described as "terrible."

The friction between the two long-standing partners in U.S.-brokered peace deals comes as President Bush prepares to visit the region next week with a goal of smoothing the way for further peace accords.

Egypt had sealed its Rafah crossing into Gaza in June, when Hamas took control of the strip. The closing left crossings on Gaza's border with Israel – where Israeli authorities exhaustively check travelers' bodies and bags – as the only ways in and out.

At least 2,152 Gaza residents had been stranded on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing since last week, when they returned from the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Israeli authorities, saying they feared that the returning pilgrims would smuggle in millions of dollars and perhaps weapons for Hamas, had urged Egypt not to let the group through the Rafah crossing.

But Hamas members among the pilgrims feared arrest if they tried to return to Gaza through Israel. Pilgrims staged angry protests, setting fires in makeshift camps, to demand passage through Egypt. Three Palestinian women died of natural causes while waiting, Palestinians said.

The Bush administration is watching the situation warily, not wanting to offend either Egypt or Israel on the eve of the president's trip. "We understand there are concerns on all sides and we will continue to have discussions on this issue," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Egypt's decision last month to allow the pilgrims to leave Gaza was an embarrassing rebuff to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who the United States is backing as the best hope for negotiating peace with Israel and whose Fatah movement is a bitter rival of Hamas.

According to Israeli and Palestinian sources, Abbas had put together his own list of pilgrims for travel to Mecca by the traditional route, through Israel and then Jordan on the way to Saudi Arabia. Abbas hoped to preempt pilgrims going under Hamas's sponsorship, but before his group could depart, 2,000 people organized by Hamas left through the Rafah crossing.

Egyptian officials said at the time that the Hamas group had Saudi visas that had to be honored. Israeli officials assert that the visas were stamped at the Saudi Embassy in Cairo and probably were smuggled back into Gaza via tunnels that Israel asserts Egypt has failed to close.

The Hamas group's departure "tremendously undermined" Abbas, said Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Abbas who is now at the New America Foundation in Washington. He said the Palestinian Authority had understood it would coordinate the movement of the pilgrims, and by accepting the Hamas-sponsored pilgrims, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were "giving Hamas a level of recognition, establishing Hamas as an official counterpart" to the Abbas government.

But some people here and in the Palestinian territories saw the temporary opening Wednesday as a gesture to bolster Abbas – he was in Cairo visiting President Hosni Mubarak and could claim that the opening was proof he can deliver for the Palestinian people.

Hossam Zaki, a spokesman for Egypt's Foreign Ministry, cited the "pressing humanitarian situation" of the pilgrims for the decision to let them through. The people went through standard border checks, he said.

Zaki said the opening was not meant to send a message to Israel or to imply Egyptian recognition of the Hamas government in Gaza. On the Gaza side of the crossing, a few hundred supporters of Hamas and the armed group Islamic Jihad took to the streets in celebration, waving banners and firing shots into the air.

In a televised statement, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh thanked the Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi governments. "We would not allow our people returning from hajj to be subject to Israeli blackmailing," he said. "They should leave in dignity and come back in dignity."

Israeli officials stressed security concerns. "The problem is that we don't know who these people are who went to Mecca and who they met with there," said Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry. "There is always a possibility that they brought back money into Gaza for terror. They could bring even ammunition, because we didn't get to check them."

In the foreign aid bill passed by Congress last month, lawmakers withheld $100 million in aid to Egypt until Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice certifies that sufficient actions have been taken by Egypt to stop smuggling between Egypt and Gaza. Bush can waive the restriction on national security grounds, however.


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