Friday, February 8, 2008

Egypt’s foreign minister has warned theat Palestinians from Gaza attempting to breach the border into Egypt will have their “legs broken,” a reflection of the intense pressures that Cairo faces as it struggles to contain a crisis in which it has no good options.

The undiplomatic language from veteran diplomat Ahmed Aboul Gheit comes as Egypt faces demands from Israel and the United States to gain control of the border and pressure from its own people and from across the Arab world not to “cooperate” with Israel’s blockade of the impoverished Palestinian enclave.

“Anyone who violates Egypt’s borders will get his legs broken,” said the usually mild-mannered Mr. Aboul Gheit, in an interview broadcast on state television late Wednesday.

He met yesterday with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch to discuss the crisis, which started Jan. 23 when thousands of Gazans broke through a security wall into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and embarked on a wild shopping spree for fuel and other staples unavailable at home.

Egypt resealed the border 12 days later, but a long-term agreement on who will police the border has proven elusive, and Palestinians and Egyptian border guards have been involved in several bloody confrontations.

“Basically, Egypt finds itself in a very, very uncomfortable position where every choice is badly flawed,” said Michael C. Dunn, editor of the Washington-based Middle East Journal. “They wish the whole thing would just go away, and that’s the frustration you hear in the minister’s comments.”

A major complicating factor for Egypt is that the Palestinian faction Hamas is in control in Gaza. The militant group has direct ideological and historical ties to Egypt’s own Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, strongly opposed to the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Aboul Gheit in the interview belittled Hamas’ military strikes within Israel, saying the missile attacks launched at Israel from Gaza were a “laughable caricature” of a real war.

“Clashing with an opponent in battle is supposed to mean damaging them,” he said. “You do not go into battle just to damage yourself.”

Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, slammed the foreign minister’s comment yesterday.

“Instead of making these threats against the Palestinian people, [Mr. Aboul Gheit] should voice his anger against the Israeli occupation,” he said.

Palestinian political analyst Said Zeedani said Mr. Aboul Gheit’s comments were “a response to all kinds of provocations by Gazans, [to claims that they] will break this siege.”

“They want to put an end to this chaos, and Hamas can’t act unilaterally,” he said.

Egypt and Israel share a common security interest in not having an unchecked movement of Gaza Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula, analysts said. In addition to missile attacks on Israel, popular Egyptian tourist sites in Sinai have been hit by terrorist bombs.

“They don’t want [Gazans] to be in the Sinai,” Mr. Zeedani said. “That’s a security problem not only for Israel, it’s a security problem for Egypt.”

Mr. Dunn noted Egypt has a demographic fear as well — the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the tiny Gaza Strip far outnumber the Egyptians residing on the much larger peninsula.

“Half a million Palestinians pouring into northeastern Sinai could easily overwhelm the limited population there,” he said.

But in cracking down on Hamas, Mr. Mubarak must also take care not to run afoul of popular Arab opinion, particularly with images of suffering and shortages in Gaza broadcast around the region.

Egypt “cannot play the role of Israel’s subcontracted jailer, strangler and starver of the Palestinians in Gaza and expect to remain credible with their own people or other Arabs,” wrote Rami G. Khouri, editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star, in a recent editorial.

Yoram Maital, director of the Haim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies at Israel’s Ben Gurion University, said the change in diplomatic tone in Mr. Aboul Gheit’s remarks was meant to send a “bold” message both to Hamas and to Israel.

“The Egyptians are saying that we are ready to work for the opening of this border gate, but we will not let you, Hamas, put us in the same position that you put us in two weeks ago,” Mr. Maital said.

Mr. Maital said Cairo was also making it clear that it would not take responsibility for the Gaza crisis, something Israeli officials have pushed.

Mr. Aboul Gheit’s other message, he said, was that “we are not going to solve your crisis with the Palestinians. There are voices of joy in Israel that Egypt might take responsibility for the Gaza Strip, but you can forget about this.”

Joshua Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv.

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