Hamas agrees to close breach

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- Hamas said yesterday that it would cooperate with Egypt to close the breached border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip today.

Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official, said that his group's gunmen would be removed from the Gaza side of the border and that efforts would be made to avoid any violence or confrontation with Egyptian border guards. Zahar spoke on his return to Gaza after meeting with Egyptian officials in Cairo.

Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, blew up sections of a wall along the border with Egypt on Jan. 23, days after Israel sealed its border crossings with Gaza in response to intensified rocket fire against Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have since crossed in and out of Egypt to stock up on supplies and other merchandise.

On Friday, Egypt tried to stop Palestinian vehicles from crossing the border, but Hamas militants were seen removing the metal barricades and spikes laid down by the Egyptian police.

"Egypt's message was very clear, that Sunday should be the day to put an end to this scene," Zahar told the Arab television station Al-Jazeera yesterday. He added that border control would be restored "gradually."

In initial statements made upon their return to Gaza, Hamas officials did not repeat a demand by the group for a central role in controlling the border crossing, but they said the operation of the border should be an Egyptian-Palestinian matter and not subject to Israeli control.

Before the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June, the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt was regulated by an agreement brokered by the United States after Israel withdrew from the area in 2005. Under its terms, forces loyal to Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, controlled the Gaza side of the crossing in conjunction with European Union monitors, while Israel supervised the comings and goings from afar by video camera.

The crossing operated sporadically, with Israel deciding when it would be open or closed, citing security considerations. The crossing was formally closed in June when Hamas routed the forces loyal to Abbas and the European monitors left.

Abbas and Egypt favor returning to the 2005 agreement. Abbas was in Cairo for talks last week, and Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, was scheduled to arrive yesterday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and other senior officials.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said yesterday that the European monitors would be welcome to return to Rafah, as long as their work was not subject to Israeli dictates.

Israeli officials said they would also be in favor of reviving the 2005 agreement. But it was not yet clear whether Israel would be demanding a supervisory role by video as in the past.

Whatever solution emerged must not jeopardize Israel's security needs, said one Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity. He also said there was some skepticism about whether the 2005 arrangement could still work. Even if Abbas placed his best people at the border, the official said, they would be vulnerable to pressure from Hamas.

Israel has controlled the flow of goods into Gaza since the Hamas takeover there, hoping to pressure Hamas into changing its positions, or to erode support among Gaza's largely impoverished population of 1.5 million. The Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, was quoted yesterday in the pro-Hamas newspaper Palestine as saying that Gaza must forge stronger economic ties with Egypt as a way of disconnecting from Israel.

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