- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 29, 2008

JERICHO, West Bank — Frustrated Palestinian Authority officials say they want to restore authority over the ruptured border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt but cannot because Hamas security forces control the area.

The power struggle between the rival Palestinian groups has left Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a no-win situation between Israel — which wants the border secured quickly — and the Hamas rulers of Gaza, who would like to keep it open.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly will tell the Egyptians at a scheduled meeting today in Cairo that he is willing to police the Palestinian side of the border. But aides to the president acknowledged there is no practical way he can do that.

“That’s the big question. ‘I want to take full responsibility, but show me how,’ ” Saeb Erekat, a senior peace negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, told The Washington Times in Jericho yesterday.

“ ’I am willing to come back to the [Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt]. I am willing to bring the Europeans back to the passage, but how am I going to function? I lost Gaza. Hamas is there.’ ”

Under an agreement on Gaza’s border passages brokered by the United States in late 2005, the Palestinians won authority to operate the Rafah crossing on the condition that European Union officials would monitor the activity. Israel was given the right to monitor activity at the crossing on a video feed and to order the crossing closed at any time.

Security forces loyal to Mr. Abbas‘ Fatah Party, however, were driven out of Gaza last summer by members of Hamas, leaving the strip firmly in control of the militant Islamic movement.

Hamas members were believed to have been instrumental in last week’s use of explosives to break down large portions of a corrugated iron wall separating Gaza from Egypt.

An unregulated border between the two is seen as a threat by both Israel and Egypt. Israeli security officials are worried that Palestinian militants will exploit the freedom to sneak into the Sinai Desert and infiltrate Israel’s porous border to carry out attacks on its citizens.

Israel is also concerned that militants who have received training in hostile countries like Iran will be able to filter in. There’s also speculation that Hamas will be able to smuggle Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped 19 months ago, out of the Gaza Strip.

For the Egyptians, an unmonitored border could permit greater cooperation between Hamas and its domestic Islamic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood already has organized large demonstrations in Cairo pressuring Mr. Mubarak to do more to break an Israeli embargo of Gaza.

Mr. Abbas‘ government, meanwhile, worried that a free flow of goods across the Rafah crossing could prompt Israel to pull out of an existing customs agreement, effectively severing Gaza economically from the West Bank.

The Associated Press yesterday quoted the Egyptian Foreign Ministry saying it wants the Palestinian Authority to control the crossings. But Hamas spokesmen said the group will not agree to a return to the status quo ante — meaning no more European monitors, no Israeli veto and no monopoly by the Palestinian Authority on security control.

“No one at this point can bypass Hamas,” said Ayman Daragmeh, a Hamas legislator in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

“The geographic and political realities on the ground have changed. No one can unilaterally impose this on Gaza” without the approval of the Hamas government, he told The Washington Times.