Hamas to control passage over breached Egypt border
RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Hamas agreed yesterday to Egyptian calls to control the flow of Palestinians through the breached Gaza border and expects Egypt to seal remaining gaps in the frontier wall, a Hamas official said.
Gunmen from the Islamist group that rules Gaza blew up metal barricades on Jan. 23 to allow Gazans relief from an Israeli-led blockade. Since then, Hamas has been under pressure from Egypt to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have crossed the border.
"We will restore control over this border, in cooperation with Egypt," Mahmoud al-Zahar said at the border town of Rafah, adding that he expected the remaining gap in the border wall to be sealed as early as today.
He said Hamas wanted Israel excluded from the future running of the crossing.
"We do not accept that the Israeli occupation will continue to have any control," Zahar said.
The fall of the Rafah wall forced Egypt to balance sympathy with the privations in Gaza with demands from the Islamist group's Western-backed rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and from Israel that the border be restored.
"We have agreed on mechanisms to resolve the current problem, such that the previous experience, where a party can control the border, will not be repeated," Zahar said without elaborating.
Egyptian officials were not immediately available for comment on Zahar's statements, which were the first sign that Hamas was yielding to pressure for the border to be sealed again.
The official crossing at Rafah used to be run by Abbas's forces under EU supervision and with Israeli security agents vetting travelers via video link. Egypt shut down its side of the terminal after Hamas seized control of Gaza last June.
Hamas wants the terminal to resume operations, but with Hamas in charge on the Gaza side - perhaps jointly with Abbas. Abbas has rejected such proposals and won US, European, and Arab backing to take control of the Rafah crossing without Hamas, though it remained unclear how he would do so, given that Hamas runs Gaza.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt welcomed the first flood of Gazans as guests, but Cairo has since tried to turn back the flood of undocumented Palestinians and restore the border, which Hamas men in bulldozers have kept open.
Egyptian security forces were holding dozens of Palestinian cars and trucks on the Egyptian side of Rafah to prevent them from going to other towns, security officials said.
One Egyptian officer told Gazans crossing into Egypt to make it a quick visit because the remaining border gap would be sealed completely by this morning.
A senior Abbas aide said Cairo was firm that any reopening of the Rafah terminal would be under the previous arrangement.
"The Egyptian brothers told Abu Mazen [Abbas] that they are supportive of the 2005 agreement. They did not talk about any future role for Hamas at the crossing," the aide said.