BEIRUT

Middle East

Hamas scales back hopes of open Egypt border

RAFAH, GAZA: Business is down because of an Egyptian security clampdown, but smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border keep operating under the supervision of Gaza's Hamas rulers.

The militant Hamas had hoped the Islamists who took charge in Egypt this summer - fellow members of the region's Muslim Brotherhood - would swiftly turn the shared border crossing into a free-flowing trade route, ending Gaza's five-year isolation from the world and making the tunnels obsolete.

However, a senior Hamas official acknowledged that Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi hasn't promised dramatic change, even as he tries to distance himself from the policy of his ousted predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, of keeping Gaza sealed.

"I think it's a mistake that some people expected a lot from the new political regime (in Egypt)," Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister of Gaza and a key Hamas point man with Egypt, said in an interview this week. "Egypt is a big country and Gaza is not the only problem for Egypt."

Gaza became a bigger problem for Egypt after an Aug. 5 attack in which gunmen in the Sinai Peninsula, next to Gaza, killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. That raised new worries about the smuggling of weapons and militants through border tunnels, and Egypt is investigating whether the assailants had ties to Gaza.

Hamas denies anyone from Gaza was involved and said it is cooperating with the Egyptian investigation, but senior Hamas figures also complained about a subsequent Egyptian border clampdown.

Despite the Egyptian security sweep, Mursi has assured Hamas leaders Egypt wants a new border regime. Some in Hamas and even some Egyptian officials raised the idea of a free trade zone between Egypt and Gaza.

However, open cross-border trade could trigger unintended consequences. Stronger Gaza-Egypt ties would deepen Gaza's economic and political separation from the West Bank, located on the opposite side of Israel, and undercut already remote chances of melding the two areas into a Palestinian state.

Trade ties could also hurt Egypt's own attempts to broker a unity deal between Hamas and its main rival, West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. An open border to Egypt would boost Gaza's hobbled economy, strengthen Hamas and might make reconciliation even less desirable for the Islamic militants who balked in the past at giving Abbas a renewed say in Gaza for the sake of unity. Hamas seized the territory from Abbas by force in 2007.

Hamad, the Gaza official, said that because of such constraints, he expects Egypt to offer only limited improvements on the border for now, such as allowing more people to cross and sending more electricity and fuel. A Hamas delegation left for Cairo on Saturday to discuss such arrangements.

"They want to move step by step," he said of his Egyptian counterparts. "They move very carefully."

Last month, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood said Mursi will not lend a hand to suffocating Gaza, but was evasive when asked whether Egypt would allow regular trade.

In one hopeful sign for Gaza, the Rafah passenger terminal, Gaza's gate to Egypt and the world, will resume operating six days a week, starting Sunday, a Gaza border official and the Egyptian news agency MENA said. After the Sinai attack, Egypt had closed the terminal for several days, then allowed only limited movement.

In a next step, Hamas wants Egypt to keep Rafah open for 12 hours per day, up from eight now, to reduce what Gaza officials say is a backlog of 40,000 people wanting to cross. Hamas also wants Egypt to strike names from a blacklist of thousands of Gazans barred from entering Egypt. Hamad said Egypt promised to study the requests.

Amid the uncertainty, tunnels remain Gaza's safety net.

The underground passages - usually several hundred meters (yards) long, with white tents marking their entry points - served as Gaza's lifeline during the harshest days of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade after the Hamas takeover.

After Israel resumed shipping consumer goods to Gaza two years ago, tunnel operators shifted to building materials and other goods restricted by Israel.

Since the Sinai attack, Egypt has closed dozens of tunnel openings. But previous security crackdowns failed because smugglers recoup, and an Egyptian security official said he expected a similar outcome this time.

One Gaza smuggler said Egyptian troops sealed his tunnel immediately after the attack, and he was told by his partners in Egypt that far fewer smuggled goods are now reaching the border because of a heavy troop presence in Sinai.

At some point, the Egyptians will ease up and he'll try to reopen his tunnel, said the 41-year-old who, like others interviewed about tunnel operations spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.

Hamas has turned the border zone into a bonded area with checkpoints, where it levies taxes on goods coming through. On a recent afternoon this week, trucks loaded with cement and gravel from Egypt stopped at a Hamas-run gate, paid their fees and headed into the border town of Rafah.

Underground travel between Gaza and Sinai, a lawless haven for militants and smugglers, is also continuing.

A 32-year-old Gaza man, who returned from medical treatment in Egypt several days before the Sinai attack, said sneaking under the border is "as easy as crossing the street." Travelers are vetted by Hamas security, walk for about five minutes through a short tunnel and pay $25 in fees, he said.

Since the Egyptian clampdown, only one of several passenger tunnels is operating, said a Gaza fish importer and frequent traveler. Returning to Gaza earlier this week, he was interrogated by Hamas security and had to pay $300 in bribes to Egyptian officers, triple the usual amount, he said.

Underground trade, with an estimated volume of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, has dropped by more than 50 percent since the Egyptian clampdown, said a Hamas security official.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that Gaza needs the tunnels until Egypt can offer trade above ground, but that Hamas promises to monitor closely who and what gets into Egypt. "When the (Rafah) terminal is opened for goods and passengers, these tunnels are going to be completely sealed," he said.

That may be a long way off.

Hamad said Egypt is concerned that full trade ties will deepen the Palestinian split and provide an opening for Israel to "unload" Gaza. Israel occupied Gaza for 38 years, until a withdrawal in 2005, and many in the international community still hold Israel partially responsible for Gaza because it controls access.

"We talk to them many times. We assure them that Gaza is part of the Palestinian homeland. Gaza is not part of Egypt," he said.

 

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