Putting Humpty Together Again in Gaza

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Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

Palestinians pass by the destroyed part of the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, January 31, 2008.

Egypt's efforts to restore order on its breached border with Gaza suffered a setback Wednesday in Cairo, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused to talk to the leaders of Hamas. Needing a Palestinian partner to police the Rafah crossing, President Hosni Mubarak had invited his Palestinian counterpart to meet with leaders of the Islamist movement that has, since last summer, been the only effective authority in Gaza. But Abbas's refusal to acknowledge the facts on the ground created by Hamas's takeover of the territory left the Egyptians with no easy way forward.

By tearing down the border wall between Egypt and Gaza last week and breaking Israel's siege, Hamas dramatically altered the equation between Israel, the Palestinians and Egypt. It also frustrated attempts by the Bush Administration, its Palestinian protege Abbas and Israel to isolate the radical movement that refuses to recognize the Jewish State. Two years after the Palestinians' legislative elections made clear that Hamas cannot be ignored, the explosions at the Rafah crossing reaffirmed that reality. But while the Egyptians have recognized that reality, President Abbas surely hasn't.

By Friday, two days into the talks, Mubarak's efforts to broker a Palestinian deal on managing the border seemed doomed. Not only did Abbas cold-shoulder the Hamas delegation, he insisted that he would never speak to the Islamic militants until they agreed to end what he called their "coup in Gaza." Hamas, he added, must "accept all international obligations and accept holding early elections. After that, our hearts are open for any dialogue." Abbas's posture may please his sponsors in Washington, but his denial of Hamas's new status has angered Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza who want reconciliation between the rival factions. In Gaza, even many Hamas opponents admire the militants for their dramatic rupture of Israel's seven-month blockade.

Having been violently ejected from Gaza last June, Abbas's militia no longer has any muscle in the Palestinian enclave. Hamas officials said it was laughable to think that Hamas would turn power in Gaza over to Fatah. The most that Abbas could hope for, says Hamas, is for some of his former border guards to temporarily resume their posts at crossings into Gaza from Israel and Egypt. Says Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhr: "Hamas does not accept anything less than a key role in the Rafah crossing."

Still, Hamas is wary of provoking Egypt. On Friday, in what may have been the only positive result of the Cairo talks, Hamas militants actually helped Egyptians reseal the breaches in the border wall with chain-link fencing and barbed wire — with the proviso that the crossing be left open for Palestinians and goods coming through Egypt. That, of course, would negate Israel's siege strategy, but the Jewish State has few good options in Gaza: Israeli military officials say their forces are capable of resealing the border themselves, but that would require a major military incursion of a type Israel has thus far avoided.

The Egyptian public, along with the wider Arab world, initially applauded President Mubarak for allowing thousands of starving Gazans to swarm in to Sinai towns for a shopping frenzy. But Egyptian public opinion has begun to shift amid concerns that Gazans were fleeing into Egypt and remaining there. Also, Egyptian police say they arrested two groups of Palestinians with arms and explosive devices, possibly en route to launch attacks in southern Israel. While the Egyptians were happy to bring relief to suffering Palestinians, they reject taking responsibility for a situation they see as created by Israel. As the pro-government weekly Al-Mussawar put it in a headline this week, "We refuse settling the Palestinians in Sinai."

The Egyptians are wary of the argument heard from some quarters in Israel that with Rafah open, Israel no longer has any humanitarian responsibility for Gaza, and that Egypt should instead assume the task. The United Nations view is that Israel's humanitarian responsibility for Gaza persists because it remains the occupying power, by virtue of its control of Gaza's airspace and the maritime and land routes into the territory.

Cairo insists that it will not be dragged back into administering Gaza, insisting that the only entity to which Israel can hand over sovereign control of the territory is a future state of Palestine. Mohamed Salmawy, head of the Cairo-based Writers Association, argues that "Israel could not have dreamed up a better scenario than the ongoing fighting between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority ... which is leading the Palestinian dream to a dead end, pushing it not towards Jerusalem and the West Bank but towards [the Sinai towns of] Rafah and al-Arish." But the future state of Palestine will remain entirely hypothetical as long as Abbas refuses to talk to Hamas.

With reporting by Amany Radwan/Cairo and Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem