Gaza City: Egypt’s new president holds the key to blockaded Gaza, but he is signalling that he won’t rush to help the territory’s Hamas rulers by striking a border deal with them, even though they are fellow members of the region’s Muslim Brotherhood.
A bilateral border agreement between Egypt and Hamas could hurt chances of setting up a single Palestinian state, made up of the West Bank and Gaza, alongside Israel.
“I don’t think they [the Egyptians] are ready for that,” said Palestinian economist and business leader Samir Hulileh.
Hamas was jubilant over Mursi’s election in neighbouring Egypt in June, hoping the Egyptian leader would lift years of travel and trade restrictions that have hit the Gaza economy hard.
But for now Mursi is keeping Hamas at arm’s length, focusing on his relationship with Egypt’s powerful military and with the US, which gives Egypt $1.3 billion in annual military aid.
In Gaza, Hamas officials say that once Mursi settles into his job, they expect him to transform the Gaza-Egypt border crossing, now open only to select passengers, into a vibrant cargo route with free trade zones.
Such a new lifeline could keep Hamas in power for years, reviving an economy battered by a border closure Israel and Mursi’s pro-Western predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, imposed after the violent Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.
One senior Hamas official said Gaza now has the chance to become semi-independent by relying on close relations with Egypt and cutting the last ties to Israel. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was expressing a personal view.
Israel might welcome closer ties between Egypt and Gaza, since this could further ease its responsibility toward the seaside territory. However, Israeli officials insisted there is no change in the current policy of isolating the territory and containing Hamas.
Israel, which withdrew from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation, still controls most of Gaza’s land border, including several crossings, and restricts access by air and sea.
Among those most affected by a separate Egypt-Gaza deal would be Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was left with limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank after Hamas seized Gaza from him.
A strong trade bond with Egypt could break Gaza’s last tentative ties with the West Bank, further hurting Abbas’ efforts to establish a state in both of those territories, along with east Jerusalem.
“This is a very dangerous step,” Abbas aid Mohammad Ishtayeh, said of Hamas’ appeal to Egypt. “It would be the end of the two-state solution,” he said.
For Hamas, that might be of little concern. The Islamists view such a state at best as an interim step toward an Islamic entity in all of historic Palestine, the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River that includes Israel.
Mursi has signalled that there will be no radical changes anytime soon.
The Egyptian leader reiterated in a weekend meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that he would honour all of Egypt’s international obligations.
He has also avoided preferential treatment of Hamas. This week, he’ll receive Abbas in Cairo, while Hamas leaders are still waiting for their invitation.