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Sinai: A key in Egypt’s ties with Hamas and Israel

by Marwa Yahia, Li Laifang, Tian Dongdong, Xinhua

August 13, 2012 (TSR) – Egypt on Saturday opened temporarily Rafah crossing for a second day to only allow Palestinians to return to Gaza, after a four-day closure due to a terrorist attack on a military checkpoint in Rafah last Sunday which killed 16 Egyptian soldiers and injured seven others.

The Rafah crossing — the only direct one of the enclaved Gaza to the outside — was closed indefinitely on the Egyptian side after the deadly attack. The Islamic Hamas movement who controls the strip has urged Egypt to reopen it.

Egypt continued its operation on Saturday to eliminate hideouts of radical militants in north Sinai. President Mohamed Morsi visited Al-Arish on Friday for the second time in less than a week, vowing to restore the security and stability in the area.

No group has claimed responsibility for the recent fatal attack. Hamas denies Gaza has anything to do with it.

Analysts believe terrorists from the strip have infiltrated into the area through illicit underground tunnels in the border area. The incident has had some negative effects on the relations between Egypt and Hamas since Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood was elected as Egypt’s first civilian president.

Hamas leaders Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haneya visited Egypt and talked with Morsi in July, in hope of more support from Egypt.

Egypt also lifted some restrictions on the Palestinians to travel to Egypt and provide Gaza badly needed fuel supply to generate power.

“Rafah’s attack will have negative impact on Egypt-Hamas relations,” Talaat Musallam, a Cairo strategic and military expert said.

“Rafah is the only active pass for Gaza. The longer its closure is, the more negative impact on Egypt-Hamas relations there will be,” added the expert.

Despite the exceptional opening on Friday and Saturday, Egypt has not announced the date of its normal opening.

Egypt has moved to destroy hundreds of border tunnels used for smuggling goods.

“Closing the tunnels will create a humanitarian crisis,” added Musallam. “Closing the tunnels is something normal, especially those tunnels are illegal and are used in illegal acts. Also Rafah ‘s attack gave Egyptian authorities reasonable grounds for the decision.”

However, Egyptian authorities should find other legitimate alternatives, by easing the restrictions and opening some parts of the tunnels under tight security control. Otherwise the Palestinians will find themselves forced to dig new tunnels, said the analyst.

Musallam said “relations between Egypt and Hamas may have some confusion for the time being. But it will return normal after a period of time”.

Ibrhim Darawy, chief of the Palestinian studies center in Cairo, said he did not expect any significant changes in Egypt-Hamas relations.

“Hamas has no interests by taking part in such criminal accident and raising crisis with Cairo. On the contrary the Islmist movement defends Egypt’s national security,” he said.

Israel has repeatedly expressed its worries over the deterioration of Sinai, after several border attacks since last year.

Akram Hossam, political analyst with the Middle East Center for Political Studies in Cairo, said Egyptian-Israeli relations wouldn ‘t be affected much. “Egypt to close its borders with Hamas benefits Israel.”

Cooperation between intelligence agencies is necessary to fight terrorism in the region, said Abdel Ali, president of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “But due to the political reasons, the cooperation will be just at the technical level instead of the strategic one.”

The Rafah attack sparked calls for amending the peace treaty, which Morsi has vowed to respect. “Morsi needs to focus on solving urgent domestic economic and security problems. Only when the domestic situation stabilizes can the president consider whether or not to review the treaty according to needs,” said Ali.

As long as Egypt does not ask officially for any amendments in the peace accord, the bilateral relations won’t be affected, analysts say.

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