Hamas confident of Egyptian help on Gaza blockade

GAZA – Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, has voiced confidence that Egypt will help it ease the effects of an Israeli blockade.

But an official source in Cairo said on Sunday Egypt would make no deal to reopen its Gaza border without the consent of Israel, Western powers and Hamas’s Palestinian rivals in the West Bank, who all oppose Hamas.

Egyptian and Hamas officials held talks last week and Sami Abu Zuhri, a senior official and spokesman for Hamas, told Reuters in an interview: “There is an understanding with the Egyptians to supply Gaza with its needs and we are talking about arrangements and a mechanism to make that happen.”

However, the Egyptian source said Cairo was for now likely to stand by a U.S.-brokered agreement it made when Israel withdrew troops from Gaza in 2005 that gives Israel an effective veto over movement across the Gaza-Egypt frontier.

“That’s where we stand at the moment,” the source told Reuters, making clear Cairo was not prepared to harm relations with Israel, the United States, European Union and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“The Israelis don’t want anything to do with Hamas at all, even at second-hand.” Egypt’s leaders view Hamas with mistrust as allies of their banned Islamist opposition.

There is widespread Arab sympathy for the plight of Gaza’s 1.5 million people and Egypt took some days to seal the border crossing at Rafah after Hamas militants blew it open a month ago. Israel had tightened an embargo in June when the Islamists seized control of the enclave.

Abbas has won EU and Arab support for a proposal to restore control of Rafah to his forces, letting trade resume. After their rout in Gaza in June, any such move seems a good way off.

Egypt has been a go-between in bargaining over an exchange of Hamas prisoners for an Israeli soldier Hamas seized in 2006, so some change on the border could be part of any deal.

Abu Zuhri said Hamas believed it was allaying Egyptian concerns that an open Gaza border controlled by Hamas would be a boon for the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist opposition in Egypt.

“We do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, regardless of what we believe,” he said.

“Maybe Cairo does not like us, but in the end there is a new party at the border and Cairo sees it must deal with us … We in Hamas very much want to maintain Egypt’s security.”

DIVISIONS

The Egyptian official source said that such assurances were unlikely to outweigh Cairo’s other commitments. Egypt is also wary of finding itself de facto responsible for Gaza, which it ran from 1948 until Israel occupied it in 1967.

Israel is pursuing U.S.-backed negotiations on establishing a Palestinian state with Abbas, who is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It has vowed to end Hamas rule in Gaza within months.

Some Palestinians believe Israel is seeking to use division among them to thwart their hopes for a state and push Egypt into taking responsibility for Gaza.

“We in Hamas reject separating the Gaza Strip from the rest of the Palestinian territories and reject the annexation of Gaza to Egypt,” Abu Zuhri said.

The group’s goal in working with Egypt was simply to resolve a “crisis” in supplies, he said, and he complained the international community was not helping.

Israel has said it is targeting Hamas in response to daily rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli towns. Abu Zuhri said Hamas was ready to halt if Israel ended all military action both in Gaza and the West Bank, and allowed free movement into Gaza.

In the meantime, Abu Zuhri said, the rocket fire was a form of “self-defense” — partly because of the “psychological” effect it had on Israelis who were abandoning homes in the line of fire. “It encourages our people,” the Hamas official said.

The group, which this month carried out the first suicide bombing in Israel in a year, was ready to launch more, he said.

He repeated Hamas may offer a “long-term truce” with Israel but would never recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist.

Israel says it may target senior Gaza leaders but Abu Zuhri said it would have no effect. “Threats to the Hamas leadership are an expression of the bankruptcy of the occupation,” he said.

“If the end comes serving the people, that is a very honorable way to go. But the occupier will pay the price.”

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