Thursday, January 31, 2008


By Roger Hardy - BBC Middle East analyst.

The chaotic scenes at the border of Gaza and Egypt, as tens of thousands of Palestinians poured across to stock up on supplies, were an extraordinary human drama. But they were also an act of calculated defiance by Hamas, the Islamist movement which seized control of the territory in June last year.

"I think what Hamas has done," says Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution in Washington, "is remind everyone it's the spoiler." Mr Riedel recently retired from government after long service with the CIA and the National Security Council. "Hamas," he says, "has shown it cannot be ignored - and has the capacity to change the situation on the ground."

Palestinian academic Yezid Sayigh says Hamas is signalling that it will not play by Israel's rules. It is also openly challenging the legitimacy of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

According to Professor Sayigh, Hamas is telling the PA, "You have been totally ineffective. Look at what we've done - we've challenged the Israelis head-on and shown they can't impose a siege on us. "

Israel's immediate concern is border security. It wants to stop weapons coming into Gaza - and rockets coming out and striking Israeli cities. It is urging the Egyptian authorities to re-impose control of the border. Danny Yatom, former head of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, says Israel prizes its peace treaty with Egypt -but wants the Egyptians to do more to help. Some analysts say Israel will have to change tack and start talking. The Israelis argue that the two countries have a common interest in sealing the border and curbing Hamas.

The dilemma of the Egyptian authorities, however, is acute. They are under pressure from their own people to show solidarity with the long-suffering Palestinians of Gaza - and under pressure from Israel and the Americans to re-establish border security. Their great fear, according to Yezid Sayigh, is that Israel wants to dump Gaza in their lap.

Talking to Hamas?

At root, the Gaza problem is a political rather than a security issue. Danny Yatom sticks to the line of the current Israeli government: no talks with Hamas as long as it does not renounce violence and recognise Israel. But it is far from self-evident that Gaza's borders can be secured - or an eventual peace deal struck - without the co-operation of Hamas.

Bruce Riedel believes that sooner or later Washington's regional friends - Egypt, Mahmoud Abbas, even the Israelis - will reach this conclusion. Whether the Bush administration does so is a more open question.

Listen to Wednesday's edition of Analysis on this subject on the BBC World Service The Gaza Break-Out



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