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A low point for Hamas and Egypt

The relationship between Hamas and the Egyptian government has always been little more than one of necessity. Put simply, the Islamist organization that runs the Gaza Strip, and Egypt, which fears the rise of Islamic militancy, have been forced to deal with each other by the realities of regional politics and geography.

That relationship has been strained to the breaking point and possibly damaged beyond repair by the Israeli assault on Hamas that began Saturday. At this point, it is no longer clear whether Egypt can even continue to play its traditional mediating role in Palestinian affairs.

“I’m worried that Egypt has destroyed its chances to play that role,” said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament. “To be an effective mediator, you have to maintain an equal distance from all sides.”

Egypt faces accusations from Hamas that it is actively supporting the Israeli campaign by continuing to keep its border with Gaza sealed when Israeli missile strikes have been killing civilians as well as Hamas fighters in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

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Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government, which sealed the border more than a year ago when Hamas took military control of Gaza, has lashed back, blaming Hamas for the suffering of the Gazans and implying that the movement is an Iranian proxy.

Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, won Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections in early 2006 and seized control of the Gaza Strip from the more moderate Fatah movement in mid-2007. Since then, Israel has tightened a blockade against Gaza, and Egypt, the only Arab country sharing a border with Gaza, has refused to open it, fearing increased Hamas influence and the responsibility for 1.5 million economically distressed Gazans.

In the aftermath of the Israeli bombardment that began Saturday, Egypt has continued to keep its Rafah border crossing mostly closed -- briefly opening it to admit a few dozen critically wounded Palestinians and to allow several truckloads of aid to enter.

Accusations fly

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Hamas and its allies, including the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, say the actions prove that Mubarak is a collaborator with Israel and the West.

Hamas issued a statement Monday saying, “We call upon the Egyptian authorities to stop these strange positions which are not consistent with the positions of the Egyptian people and their historical positions in supporting the Palestinian cause.”

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah was more direct, charging that Egypt’s government was “taking part in the crime” against Palestinians and calling on Egyptians to rise up and force open the Rafah crossing.

Nasrallah’s sentiments echo the feelings of many in Egypt who sympathize with Palestinians in Gaza. And across the Arab world, many chafe at the sight of Egyptian police shooting in the air to scare desperate Gazans away from the border.

Perhaps the most damaging image to many Arabs came the day before the Israeli assault began, when Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni visited Cairo, which had brokered a six-month cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that Hamas terminated Dec. 19. The sight of Mubarak smiling and shaking hands with Livni has fueled regionwide speculation that Egypt was aware of the impending attack and perhaps even approved.

On Tuesday an angry crowd stormed the Egyptian consulate in the Yemeni city of Aden. News reports said protesters vandalized the building, burned the Egyptian flag on the roof and hoisted a pro-Palestinian banner in its place.

But not all Egyptians sympathize with such actions. Many in Cairo believe their nation has paid enough for the sake of the Palestinian cause, fighting several wars and losing tens of thousands of soldiers.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Tuesday that Nasrallah had “insulted the Egyptian people,” and he implied that Hamas and Hezbollah were vehicles for Iran’s regional ambitions.

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“There are Iranian motives driving Arab parties to play in the interests of Iran,” Aboul Gheit said.

Mubarak, in a televised address Tuesday, criticized both Israel and Hamas. He condemned the “savage aggression” of the assault and said Israel’s “bloodstained hands are stirring up feelings of enormous anger.”

But Mubarak also accused Hamas of stubbornly bringing on the carnage by refusing to renew the truce.

“We warned [Hamas] repeatedly that rejecting the truce would push Israel to aggression against Gaza,” he said.

Go-between

Cairo has long feared Hamas’ historical and ideological ties with its sister Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. On Tuesday, Egyptian police arrested 23 Brotherhood members who were on their way to a pro-Hamas rally.

Yet Egypt effectively played go-between for several years, with Hamas on one side and the United States, Israel and Hamas’ rival, the Fatah faction, on the other.

When a Hamas-Fatah unity government collapsed and Hamas took full control of the Gaza Strip, Egypt had an Islamist mini-state directly on its eastern border and it responded by closing the crossing.

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In January, Hamas blew open the border wall, allowing tens of thousands of Gazans to flood into the northern Sinai peninsula. Since then, relations between Egypt and Hamas have further deteriorated, despite Cairo’s assistance in brokering the truce with Israel this summer.

The two sides have traded testy allegations throughout the year: Egypt accused Hamas of stubbornness and belligerence, and Hamas said Egypt was biased toward Israel and Fatah. At one point, Hamas officials began lobbying for Qatar to assume the mediator’s role, but Israel and the U.S. insisted that Egypt continue as the main liaison.

However, some observers expect an eventual resumption of the working relationship -- if for no other reason than the two are stuck with each other.

“We don’t have much of a choice. Hamas is the power in control of Gaza, and Gaza will be always adjacent to Egypt,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, an analyst with the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“The relations between Egypt and Hamas have reached a very low point, but there is a future. We don’t have a choice but to reestablish the relations.”

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau and special correspondent Fayed abu Shammaleh in Cairo contributed to this report.


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