- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Egypt will close its breached border wall with Gaza today in coordination with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that blew it up, a senior Hamas leader said yesterday after meeting with Egyptian officials.

But Mahmoud Zahar said the closure would be temporary while the Egyptians search for a way to reopen the border. Hamas blew the wall open Jan. 23 to end a seven-month Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Egyptian officials were not available for comment on the Hamas claims. It was not clear whether Egypt was considering the group’s demand for a say in running the Egyptian-Gazan border.

Any role for the Islamic militants on the border would be sure to anger the international community and Hamas’ archrival, the more moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, because it would amount to tacit recognition of Hamas rule in Gaza.

Hamas violently wrested control of the tiny seaside territory, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, in June, leaving Mr. Abbas controlling only the West Bank.

Since the border breach, hundreds of thousands of Gazans have flooded Egypt’s border area, and Hamas has thwarted repeated attempts by Egypt to reseal the frontier. Yesterday, Mr. Zahar said Egyptian officials told him they would restore order at the crossing.

“Egypt’s message was very clear, that Sunday should be the day to put an end to this scene,” Mr. Zahar told the Arab satellite TV station Al Jazeera.

The Hamas leader, widely seen as the mastermind of Hamas’ Gaza takeover, said the Islamist group would cooperate with Egypt in its efforts.

According to Mr. Zahar, Egypt agreed to coordinate with Hamas on some border issues and enable thousands of Palestinians stuck in Egypt to head to third countries for which they have visas or residency permits.

In an interview with Associated Press Television News, Mr. Zahar suggested the Egyptians planned to reopen the border after talks with European officials arriving in the region.

The European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, was expected to arrive in Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials yesterday. The international Mideast envoy, Tony Blair, is also planning a trip to the region in coming days to address the border standoff.

Hamas breached the border several days after Israel imposed a complete blockade on Gaza, with Egyptian backing, in response to a rocket barrage from Gaza on Israeli border towns. The blockade tightened the already severely restricted access to the territory that Israel and Egypt imposed after Hamas’ Gaza takeover.

Earlier last week, Egypt and Mr. Abbas endorsed restoring a 2005 border arrangement in which European monitors are deployed on the Palestinian side to prevent smuggling of weapons and militants, and Israel watched traffic by closed-circuit TV.

Mr. Abbas has proposed sending loyalist security forces to the border, to get around the international boycott of Hamas and ensure the crossing is open.

Hamas has said it opposes the 2005 arrangement because it granted Israel a final say over when the Gaza-Egypt border is open. The EU monitors are based in Israel, and Israel in the past frequently asked the monitors to stay away, citing security reasons, in effect shutting down border operations.

At the closed Rafah border crossing, about 600 women loyal to Hamas protested to demand its opening.

In a related development, the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, said he would like to see Gaza’s economy cut from Israel, and instead receive fuel and electricity from Egypt.

Israel, which pulled out of Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, supplies all of Gaza’s fuel and more than two-thirds of its electricity. Egypt supplies about 5 percent of Gaza’s electricity.

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