Frustrated Hamas seeks light at end of Egyptian tunnel

GAZA Mon Aug 13, 2012 10:39am EDT

Egyptian soldiers stand guard at Rafah border crossing between Egypt and southern Gaza Strip August 10, 2012. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Egyptian soldiers stand guard at Rafah border crossing between Egypt and southern Gaza Strip August 10, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

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GAZA (Reuters) - The Islamist group Hamas, stunned by Egypt's closure of its border with Gaza, said on Monday the new Islamist leadership in Cairo was imposing the same pain on the Palestinian enclave as ousted former president, Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt pulled the shutters down on the Rafah passenger terminal a week ago after unidentified militants shot dead 16 Egyptian police near the Gaza border before launching an attack on neighboring Israel that was swiftly smothered.

Hamas denied speculation that some of the assailants had crossed from Gaza and has accused Egypt, led since June by an Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi, of imposing collective punishment on the impoverished Palestinians.

"We suffered from the unjust regime of Mubarak that participated in the (Israeli) blockade of Gaza. Why should we suffer now in the era of Egypt's revolution and democracy?" said Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hammad.

"The Egyptian leadership is requested to order the reopening of the Rafah crossing to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians wanting to travel, students, patients, residents in third countries and pilgrims," he added in a statement.

Israel has for years refused exit visas for all but a tiny minority in Gaza, making Rafah the sole window on the world for almost all of the enclave's 1.7 million Palestinians, with some 800 people a day using the terminal to reach Egypt.

Since the closure, thousands have been stranded, although Cairo did order a brief opening on Friday to allow Palestinians trapped in Egypt to return home.

Egypt said on Monday it would open the crossing temporarily yet again, but just for three days, mainly to permit travel for humanitarian cases such as Palestinians seeking medical care abroad, and students, a Hamas official said.

"If Palestine was not a top priority for you, you should change direction," Hammad said in an unusually sharp rebuke.

Hamas believed Mursi would usher in a new period of harmony between Gaza and Cairo, but that has yet to materialize because of strategic considerations involving Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel and related military aid from the United States.

TUNNEL CLASHES

Immediately after the Sinai killings, Hamas ordered the closure of around 1,000 smuggling tunnels along its border with Egypt to prevent possible infiltration by attackers.

Several tunnels have remained operational bringing food, fuel and construction materials into Gaza, but Hamas has said it would be willing to see all the underground passages closed if Egypt agreed to defy Israel and let goods flow through Rafah.

Israel maintains a strict control of all imports into Gaza to prevent arms reaching Hamas, which refuses to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist. Mubarak, deeply suspicious of the Islamists, was happy to support the Gaza blockade.

In a call underscoring deep fissures within Palestinian society, Hamas's political foes have urged Egypt to destroy all the tunnels and starve the Islamist group of the multi-million dollar duties it imposes on smuggled produce.

"These tunnels, which solidified the division of Palestine in Gaza, have for some time been a threat to Egypt's national security and the unity of the Palestinian people," said Tayeb Abdel-Rahim, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas governs only in the nearby West Bank after Hamas defeated his forces in Gaza in a brief civil war in 2007.

"Illegal smuggling comes at the expense of the legitimate interests of our nation and its citizens," he added. His comments were denounced by Hamas, which called the tunnels a "lifeline" for Gaza's people.

(Editing by Crispian Balmer and Jon Hemming)

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