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Last Updated: Friday, 1 February 2008, 15:10 GMT
Tough choices follow Gaza breakout
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Egyptian border guards at Rafah crossing (01/02/08)
The border breach has put Egypt in a precarious position
A little over a week ago the status quo that has dominated the lives of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip was breached in a series of dramatic explosions along the border fence with Egypt.

A human wave surged across the frontier, eager to obtain basic supplies and other goods that were unobtainable in the Gaza Strip itself.

No wonder then that leading Israeli commentators have described the Gaza break-out as a turning point in the complex relationship linking Israel, Egypt and the Hamas regime in Gaza.

In the short-term at least Israel appears the main loser.

Its efforts to step up pressure on Hamas by restricting fuel supplies to the territory back-fired badly.

"It's a clear limitation on Israel's policy," says Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University in the US.

"Initially," he told me "some Israelis chose to view this new situation as an opportunity; Gaza, rather than being the responsibility of Israel, would look to Egypt for its future economic well-being."

But whether this corresponds in any way to the new reality or whether it contains a good deal of wishful thinking, he told me, is still hard to say

Egyptian dilemma

What is clear is that, at least for now, Hamas has emerged triumphant, striking a blow against Israeli pressure, but equally thumbing its nose at the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and precipitating a problem into the laps of the Egyptians which they certainly do not want.

I don't think it is feasible at all to shut the border again
Abdel Monem Said Aly
Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies
By opening the way for a surge of Palestinian people-power into Egypt, Hamas has at a stroke made itself a player again in the diplomatic game despite the efforts of virtually all sides to marginalise its influence.

Many Egyptian commentators believe that it will not be possible for their government to close the door again on Gaza.

"I don't think it is feasible at all to shut the border again," says Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"All we can hope for is to have it open in a controlled way."

Here, though, lies the dilemma for Egypt.

It is no friend of Hamas, which is closely related to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood opposition inside Egypt itself.

There are also fears about radical Palestinian factions moving into Sinai and possibly mounting attacks into Israel from Egyptian soil.

The government in Cairo, then, is torn between its own security concerns, its understandable desire to relieve Palestinian hardship (itself a response to popular pressure in Egypt) and the need to manage its increasingly fragile relationship with Israel.

Egypt does not want to shoulder the responsibility of the Rafah checkpoint alone.

Ideally, the Egyptians would like to see European Union observers return to monitor the crossing-point.

"We need the Europeans," says Abdel Monem Said Aly, "because the last arrangement with Israel required them to be there, but also because otherwise Egypt alone will carry the whole responsibility. We need someone else to be there to act as referee."

Marginalising Abbas?

The two main Palestinian factions are still arguing with the Egyptians about who should have responsibility on the Palestinian side of the crossing.

The EU's official antipathy towards Hamas makes the return of the monitors a sensitive proposition too.

And Israel's attitude would be crucial too. As was clear during the period prior to the Hamas take-over in Gaza, Israel was able to limit opening of the Rafah crossing point by effectively preventing the EU monitors from reaching their posts.

Behind the scenes Israel, too, is an actor in the debate.

It does not want to see anything happen that might legitimise the Hamas regime in Gaza.

But Hamas is in control there and this in turn presents another set of dilemmas for Cairo.

"At the recent Annapolis meeting in the United States, Egypt once again endorsed a peace process in which the Fatah leader and President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmud Abbas, was the only Palestinian address," Shai Feldman notes.

Now, in the present situation, he told me, "Egypt cannot rewrite the rules of the game by negotiating a new agreement with Hamas".

This would, he said, "turn President Abbas into little more than the Mayor of Ramallah!"

Israeli nightmare

Israel-Egypt relations, already on a bumpy trajectory over recent months, could be worsened if there can be no satisfactory arrangement on the Gaza-Egypt border.

Child waves Palestinian flag on Israeli side of Erez Crossing (26/02/08)
Israel fears a similar rush on its border crossing with Gaza
"There is a level of tension", Abdel Monem Said Aly said, "but also a level of co-operation."

Egypt, he suggested, might need additional forces in the Sinai Peninsula to bolster security. And this, inevitably would require some sort of deal with Israel.

The Gaza border breach has added a new level of complexity to the Israel-Palestinian dispute, drawing Egypt into the frame whether it wants to be there or not.

It has also served as a dramatic reminder to much of the international community that whatever its antipathy towards Hamas, Gaza is a problem that simply cannot be ignored.

It has also raised fears inside Israel about a potential orchestrated Palestinian breakout in their direction.

What would Israeli troops do then if faced with tens of thousands of men, women and children flooding towards them?

Not surprisingly, on hearing the news from Rafah, one of the Israeli army's first steps was urgently to despatch additional riot control gear southwards.

It is a nightmare scenario for the Israelis that the Rafah breakout suggests can no longer be dismissed as an outlandish possibility.

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