"Gaza is not occupied, so why should Israel have any role [at the Gaza-Egypt border crossing] when it has no presence on the border between Egypt and Gaza?" argued Mohammed Nuseir, a member of Hamas' political bureau, on Saturday.
This is an interesting position for several reasons. First, it is the first time an official Hamas representative has explicitly stated that the Gaza Strip is no longer occupied. This means that Hamas will absolve Israel of responsibility for what happens there, as long as Israel no longer actually controls the Gaza-Egypt border.
At the same time, it puts Egypt in the difficult position of being Gaza's only outlet to the world - which means that it will also be held responsible for the Strip's economic plight.
That is exactly what is giving Cairo headaches. Egypt would be happy to serve as a shopping center for 1.5 million Gaza residents and provide them with services that could bring over $1.5 billion a year into its coffers. But it does not want to be responsible for security in Gaza. Its baseline position - that Gaza is occupied territory, and any solution to its problems is inseparable from a solution in the West Bank - remains unchanged.
Therefore, Egypt has adopted a policy of pretense. It pretends that there is a responsible government in Gaza with which it is willing to negotiate on opening the border crossings, but refuses to recognize this government as the government of Palestine. It pretends that an open-door policy in Gaza can be isolated from a comprehensive political solution, but insists on the necessity of such a solution.
Egypt is not thereby violating any agreements, because it never signed the one made in 2005 concerning the border crossings. The signatories to that pact were Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the European Union and the United States. Yet it is discarding the sanctions against Hamas that the entire Arab world, including Egypt, initially agreed to (but later renounced).
Egypt is also embarrassing PA President Mahmoud Abbas: Not only is it undermining his demand that Hamas restore the situation in Gaza to what it was before the organization's military takeover of the Strip in June 2007, but Abbas will now have to join any agreement that Cairo reaches with Hamas, instead of being in sole control of the crossings. This was evident in the statements made by Abbas' aides over the weekend - that they would "applaud Hamas if it manages to obtain a better agreement than the one signed in 2005."
No deal was signed at this weekend's Egypt-Hamas talks, but the parties are expected to call another meeting soon, to which PA representatives, and perhaps even Abbas, will be invited. The beginnings of an agreement were already evident yesterday, when Egypt and Hamas cooperated in controlling the flow of traffic through the breached border barrier.
Egypt wants to use the border-crossing issue as a lever to promote dialogue between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah faction. But Hamas will now be entering such talks with a big advantage: The border with Egypt will already be open.
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