Egypt in awkward position on Gaza following Israeli attack on aid flotilla

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

GAZA CITY -- With pressure building on Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip, Egypt finds itself in the uncomfortable position of continuing to help enforce the siege while watching Turkey outflank the region's traditional Sunni Arab heavyweights in championing the Palestinian cause.

Egypt, the only nation aside from Israel to control a crossing into Gaza, has its own domestic political reasons for wanting the strip to remain closed. It views Hamas, the radical Islamist group that controls the territory, as an ally of Egypt's foremost opposition movement: the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian officials worry that any opening of the territory could have negative political repercussions for President Hosni Mubarak's government.

But since May 31, when Israeli commandos killed nine activists in a melee aboard a Turkish aid flotilla that was bound for Gaza, Egypt's stance has become increasingly awkward as calls have intensified for the blockade of the narrow coastal strip to end. Even as Turkey's popularity in the region has skyrocketed following its denunciations of Israel's tactics, Egypt, Jordan and other Sunni powers have come under attack for not doing more to help the 1.5 million Palestinians living under siege in Gaza.

"You basically had complicity on the part of the Egyptians, the Jordanians and others to keep Hamas isolated, and now that's been overturned by the flotilla disaster," said a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The flotilla raid has emboldened Hamas and dealt a fresh blow to Arab moderates who favor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement. It has also highlighted Egypt's waning influence in the region, particularly its inability to mediate a reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas, which have been divided since a bloody power struggle in 2007 left Hamas in control of Gaza.

"It has put the moderates in an impossible situation," said a former senior Arab diplomat, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "There is no way you can stand against an attempt to break the Gaza blockade, particularly when people are killed."

Egypt has said it favors lifting the blockade, but has balked at fully opening the crossing under its control. Unlike Turkey, which sees no cost in strengthening Hamas, Egypt's Mubarak is deeply reluctant to embrace the group. At the same time, appearing insensitive to the Palestinians and cooperative with Israel carries its own political risks for Mubarak, who at 82 and in poor health may be trying to pave the way for his son Gamal to succeed him, especially with elections coming up next year.

Amid domestic outrage following the flotilla deaths, Egypt announced it was indefinitely opening its crossing with Gaza at Rafah. But of the 8,000 Gazans who tried to cross through Rafah in the past two weeks, 1,500 were turned back. Seven trucks of goods have crossed into Gaza via Rafah, said Ghazi Hamad, the Palestinian coordinator of all crossings into and out of Gaza. In the same period, hundreds have entered from Israel. The only Gazans who can travel via Rafah are those seeking medical care, students and holders of international visas or passports. Hamas leaders are prohibited from leaving via Rafah, and several were denied passage in the past two weeks, Hamad said.

Meanwhile, Egypt continues to construct an underground wall to block tunnels used for smuggling, which is a mainstay of the Gazan economy. An Egyptian diplomat said it will be completed by the end of the summer.

The perils and persistent necessity of the smuggling trade were highlighted during a visit on Sunday by Amr Moussa, the Egyptian secretary general of the Arab League. As he conferred with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh at his home in the Beach refugee camp, a 17-year-old Palestinian boy was electrocuted in a tunnel.

Hamas leaders are reluctant to publicly criticize Egypt because they fear that Rafah could be shuttered entirely. But privately, frustration is palpable.

"Relations between Egypt and Hamas are not so good," one Hamas official said. "Egypt blames Hamas for not signing the reconciliation agreement. Still, people here, they expect Egypt to do a lot, to play a big role in breaking the siege, to put pressure on Israel."

Gaza, a narrow strip of territory sandwiched between Israel and Egypt along the Mediterranean Sea, has long been subject to the whims of neighboring powers. Egypt controlled Gaza for most of the period from 1948 to 1967, when Israel seized control of the territory in the Six Day War.

In 2005, Israel withdrew 8,000 Jewish settlers from the territory, and a year later Hamas defeated Fatah in Palestinian elections. In 2007, Hamas sent most of Fatah's leaders fleeing to the West Bank after a bloody internecine battle; the move prompted Israel to intensify the closure of Gaza.

Amid the impasse in reconciliation talks, Faisal Abu Shala, a Fatah member of the defunct Palestinian legislature, is under his own kind of siege in Gaza. Hamas treats him and the few Fatah members who remain in Gaza more as members of an outlawed organization than as political rivals. On Sunday, two of his colleagues were summoned to a Hamas intelligence center for interrogation.

The Arab states "left us for a long time," Abu Shala said. "They left us split and they left us suffering in Gaza."

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