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Chaos may lead to shift in Gaza

Border crisis may spark a reassessment of efforts to stifle Hamas.

Associated Press
Published January 26, 2008


The chaotic scenes on the Gaza-Egypt border are forcing Israel, Egypt and the international community to rethink a two-year policy of trying to weaken Gaza's Hamas rulers by keeping the territory sealed.

The Hamas-engineered border breach, in which thousands of Palestinians broke out of blockaded Gaza this week, highlights the movement's resilience and ability to stir up trouble. It also reminds the world that 1.5-million Gazans, many bitterly poor, cannot remain locked up indefinitely.

Any easing of the Gaza closure could well stabilize Hamas' militant government in the coastal strip, something the West would be loath to see. It's also unlikely that all those with conflicting interests in Gaza, including Israel, Hamas and pro-Western Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, could agree on a solution.

Yet a more relaxed Gaza border regime could entice Hamas to halt rocket fire, and this, in turn, could buy Abbas and Israel the necessary calm to make progress on a U.S.-backed peace deal.

The current border crisis developed at breathtaking speed, typical of Gaza's volatility.

It started last week with what Israel says was the inadvertent killing of a son of Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar in an Israeli arrest raid. Hamas retaliated with rocket barrages on Israel, and Israel struck back by sealing Gaza hermetically and cutting off fuel shipments.

On Wednesday, Gaza militants blew down the border wall with Egypt, effectively ending the Israeli blockade, which had been tacitly backed by Egypt.

Hamas-backed militants driving bulldozers knocked down more fortifications Friday along the Gaza-Egypt border. Palestinians positioned cranes next to the border and lifted crates of supplies into Gaza, including camels and cows.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's hands have been tied. Under popular pressure in the Arab world to help the embattled Gazans, he couldn't send his border guards to confront huge crowds.

In a previous major breach, after Israel's pullout from Gaza in 2005, Egypt gradually restored control after four days, but a similar effort Friday was met by Hamas resistance. Hamas hard-liner Sami Abu Zuhri confidently declared the border would have to remain open.

The almost complete closure of Gaza by Israel and Egypt in June, after the violent Hamas takeover of the strip, had made it difficult for Hamas to provide even basic services, and dissatisfaction among Gazans was rising.

Egypt would probably not be eager to strike a deal with Hamas. The Islamic militants are an offshoot of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, which leads opposition to Mubarak in Egypt.

Israel, meanwhile, has been watching from the sidelines, not entirely opposed to the turn of events. A strong Gaza-Egypt link would be supported by many Israelis who believe Israel should cut all ties with Gaza, a territory it occupied for 38 years before withdrawing in 2005.

Israel is still considered by the United Nations to be largely responsible for Gaza since it controls most access, as well as Gaza's airspace and coastline. Israel could try to unload such responsibilities now.

Karin Laub, the Associated Press' chief correspondent in Ramallah in the West Bank, has reported on Israel and the Palestinian territories since 1987.

Mubarak appeals to Hamas, Fatah

CAIRO - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak offered Friday to host talks between rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas leaders in an apparent effort to increase his country's role as a Mideast peace broker and ease pressure after the Gaza Palestinian influx into Egypt from the Hamas-controlled strip.

In an interview for today's edition of the Egyptian weekly al-Osboa, Mubarak said he wants peace between the Palestinians. "I want this language of violence to stop," he was quoted as saying by the state MENA news agency. "Peace could be achieved on the basis of international resolutions and agreements that demand the establishment of a Palestinian state."

A Hamas spokesman told Al-Jazeera TV that supreme leader Khaled Mashaal was ready to accept the invitation. A spokesman for moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Fatah had made no decision.

[Last modified January 26, 2008, 01:37:40]

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