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Cairo has severely toughened its stance on exit permits for Hamas leaders from Gaza and is demanding that Hamas unconditionally sign a reconciliation agreement with Fatah prepared by the Egyptians.

The moves come amid tensions due to Egypt's construction of a wall between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, and the killing of an Egyptian policeman by Palestinian snipers two months ago.

Egypt has also increasingly blocked the entry of Arab and Muslim delegations into Gaza.

The killing of the policeman has been seen as an issue of national honor in Egypt. Most recently, Egyptian artists and actors organized a protest against Hamas' conduct while demanding that the officer's killers be handed over.

Hamas leaders had earlier promised to provide Cairo with the identities of the suspects.

In Egypt there are concerns about further attacks to undermine Cairo's construction of the wall; these could be initiated by Hamas or smaller and less identifiable factions.

Meanwhile, gradual changes are underway in Hamas' power structure - mainly between the Gaza-based leadership and the Damascus-based group. The head of the Hamas politburo, Damascus-based Khaled Meshal, has moved to establish a new government that would run the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip while taking orders from the leadership in Syria.

Meshal recently appointed his deputy, Musa Abu Marzuk, to a post akin to Hamas defense minister.

Palestinian sources say that the decision was not well received by the head of Hamas' military wing in the Strip, Ahmed Ja'abari, who refuses to take orders from Abu Marzuk.

The Hamas politburo chief has taken pains to attract senior figures in Gaza to his cause; he has, for example, awarded a senior position to Nizar Awadallah, a leading Hamas figure there.

The recent resignation of Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior member of the Gaza-based leadership, from the negotiating team in the deal for abducted soldier Gilad Shalit is believed to have two causes: opposition to the tough stance of the Damascus-based leadership in the negotiations and its unwillingness to sign a reconciliation deal with Fatah.

In both cases Zahar adopted a more pragmatic stance than Meshal, siding more with the Egyptian position. Cairo has already told Meshal that he will have to sign the reconciliation document without any changes.