When Egypt Clenches Its Iron Fist on Gaza

Egypt is not trying to help Israel or the U.S., but is sending a message to Hamas and Syria.

Last week Egypt refused to let an international aid convoy into Gaza from Aqaba through Nuweiba and forced it to return to Syria and from there proceed to El Arish.

Yesterday Egypt exercised considerable force to demonstrate its determination in deciding who enters Gaza, how and when, as it stood off against Palestinians rioting over the convoy's delay.

Egypt's approach to the aid convoy is not unrelated to its construction of a steel fence along the border to block the smuggling from Egypt to Gaza.

Despite public criticism in Egypt and other Arab states, including burning President Hosni Mubarak's picture and accusing him of cooperating with Israel, Egypt remains adamant in its position.

Egypt's stance does not arise from its desire to help the Israeli siege on Gaza or to respond to the United States' demand to prevent smuggling. It is intended to show both Hamas and Syria that just as it has the power to open the border crossings at will and relieve the siege, so it can twist Hamas' arm.

Egypt has good reason to do so, after Hamas refused to sign the reconciliation agreement with Fatah that Egypt had suggested. Egypt is also making it clear to Syria that from now on Damascus and Iran no longer have exclusive control over Hamas' moves, and that Cairo has a powerful economic lever at its disposal.

Egypt is interested in Palestinian reconciliation and wishes to set up a Palestinian unity government. Egypt has assured Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas of its support if such a government is formed, mainly because it does not want to be responsible for the Gaza Strip.

But Cairo is fed up with Hamas' foot-dragging and Tehran's meddling. In this Egypt is assisted by Saudi Arabia, which gave Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal an ultimatum to decide whether he is running an Arab organization or is under the "patronage of a foreign power," i.e. Iran.

Meshal hastened to state that Hamas is an Arab-Muslim organization and is not subordinate to anyone else. But until Hamas signs the reconciliation agreement Egypt will continue building the fence and preventing people and goods from reaching Gaza, apart from humanitarian aid.

The reconciliation is one of the two conditions Egypt is demanding for opening the border crossings. The second pertains to the success of the Shalit deal.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said that if the Shait deal works out and if Hamas signs the reconciliation agreement, it could lead to lifting the blockade from Gaza completely and to opening the border.