GAZA (Reuters) - The head of the Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip said on Friday he was confident Egypt’s new president would shield the Palestinian enclave from Israeli attack and fully open its borders to end a trade blockade.
Mohamed Mursi, who won power in last month’s presidential election in Egypt, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and ideologically close to Hamas.
The Gazan Islamists long complained that his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, ousted from power last year in a popular revolt, sided not just with Israel, but also with their political rival — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement.
So far, Hamas has seen little sign of a policy shift since Mursi took office and diplomats said the Egyptian leader had so many domestic problems that he could ill-afford to dedicate much time to re-tooling Cairo’s relations with the Palestinians.
However, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’s Gaza government, told worshippers in a mosque that change was coming.
“We are confident that Egypt, the revolution led by Mursi, will never provide cover for any new aggression or war on Gaza,” he said. “We are confident that Egypt, the revolution led by Mursi, will not take any part in blocking Gaza,” he added.
Israel launched a military offensive against Gaza in late 2008 in an effort to end repeated rocket attacks from Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died in the three-week war.
Low level violence continues and Israel still imposes a rigid trade blockade on Gaza, arguing that it is needed to prevent weapons of arms-making materials into the enclave.
Politicians in Israel have expressed alarm in private over the election of Mursi and fear that their country’s historical peace treaty with Egypt could be eroded over time.
Mubarak helped police the Gaza blockade and did not let any goods officially cross the border, saying this was part of longstanding accords with Washington and Israel. However, Cairo always turned a blind eye to a thriving blackmarket business with Gaza conducted through a warren of underground tunnels.
A few hundred people cross in and out of Gaza every day via Egypt and the number of passengers has increased since Mursi took office. However, officials on both sides explain this on the start of the holiday season rather than on any policy shift.
Mursi’s position will soon be put to test when he meets officials from Hamas and the secular Fatah, which is backed by Western powers and rules in the nearby West Bank.
Protocol means that Mursi will almost certainly see Abbas first, with one source saying it would happen on Wednesday. No date has yet been set for a Hamas delegation to be received.
Both President Abbas and Hamas are likely to be pressed by Egypt to end their long-standing hostilities, which at one point saw the two sides fight a brief civil war in Gaza.
“No one can help the Palestinians more than they can help themselves. They should take daring steps to end their rifts,” an official in Cairo told Reuters by phone.
Repeated attempts at Palestinian reconciliation have ended in failure, with the two sides at loggerheads on everything from setting a date for elections to cooperating on security.
“Theoretically, Mursi’s election gave a boost to Hamas, but the man has a million domestic problems to handle at home,” a diplomat in the region told Reuters, asking not to be named.
“If Mursi publicly backs Hamas, he would be seen as supporting the Palestinian division and that would reflect badly on his foreign policy. He has to tread it carefully,” he added.
Editing by Crispian Balmer