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World News

Abbas and Hamas seek upper hand in Gaza border dispute

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - The European Union on Monday raised the possibility of sending its monitors back to Gaza’s breached border with Egypt and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sought to rally Western support to sideline Hamas.

However, any such redeployment of EU border monitors seemed remote for the time being, as Hamas fighters cooperated with Egyptian forces to patch up the frontier barrier the Islamists blasted open last week to puncture an embargo tightened by Israel in response to rockets fired from the Hamas-run enclave.

Hamas’s action at Rafah let hundreds of thousands of Palestinians pour into Egypt to stock up on supplies -- a coup for the Islamists in a factional struggle with Abbas that saw them seize control of Gaza in June, prompting the virtual sealing off of 1.5 million people and departure of EU monitors.

The European Union, along with other international powers, has voiced concern about the welfare of people in Gaza under the Israeli-led blockade and the European Union on Monday agreed to consider renewing the mission to oversee traffic.

“The EU is ready to consider resuming its monitoring mission in Rafah,” a diplomat said after EU foreign ministers discussed the issue in Brussels. The bloc’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana said: “The European Union is ready to play its own role.”

EU monitors were posted at Rafah under a deal with Egypt and Israel in 2005 that aimed to allay the Jewish state’s concerns about arms coming into Gaza when it pulled out its own troops.

At Rafah, traffic was back down to a trickle, partly due to Egypt’s efforts to stem the flow of goods to the border area.

Egyptian and Hamas forces used concrete and fencing to close two gaps. Two other breaches in the frontier remain open, an entry and an exit, under joint Hamas and Egyptian guard.

A Hamas source said those openings would be closed on Wednesday provided talks in Cairo with Egyptian officials “prove positive” for Hamas by giving it a say on the border in future.

Both Hamas leaders and Abbas, who won Arab League backing on Sunday for a proposal to send his own forces to police and keep open Gaza’s borders, are expected in Cairo on Wednesday.

Egypt is uncomfortable at Islamist militants moving freely from Gaza and is under pressure from Israel to seal the border. But it did not crack down hard on ordinary Gazans, who enjoy popular sympathy among fellow Arabs in Egypt and elsewhere.

“HAMAS MUST AGREE”

European diplomats said the EU, which like Israel shuns Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation, would only send monitors back to the border crossing at Rafah under the auspices of Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, and provided there would be assurances they would not be at risk from Hamas.

It is unclear how EU security concerns can be addressed: “We cannot deliver Hamas, someone else has to,” one of the European officials said. “Hamas has to agree to it.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry held preliminary talks over the weekend with members of the EU mission, EU officials said.

Hamas rejected Abbas’s proposal to run the border himself: “Rafah is an Egyptian-Palestinian crossing,” Hamas’s Sami Abu Zuhri said. “It must be reopened under a new arrangement.”

The issue of who controls Gaza’s border crossings is at the epicentre of a larger power play between Abbas and his Hamas rivals seven months after the Islamist group routed Abbas’s secular Fatah forces, limiting the president’s authority to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, home to 2.5 million Palestinians.

“Of course they should give the border to Abbas. But where is he?” asked 28-year-old school teacher Ahmed Zaqtan as he returned to Gaza from the Egyptian side on Monday.

By pressing for control of the crossings, Abbas and his Western-backed government hope to establish a strategic foothold in Hamas-run territory. Hamas sees the effort as part of a campaign to limit its power, won in elections in January 2006.

Abbas’s inability to control Gaza is a major hindrance to new, U.S.-backed efforts to conclude a peace with Israel.

Abbas’ government said it agreed with Cairo that it would run the crossing, excluding Hamas. But Hamas says Cairo has made no such decision. The Egyptian government has not commented.

Like Hamas, Israel has resisted Abbas’ bid to take control of the crossings. It believes that, even under Abbas’s auspices, free traffic would bolster Hamas and its ability to arm itself.

Israeli officials said the proposal was under consideration but they doubted Abbas’s forces could satisfy Israel’s demands.

Additional reporting by Adam Entous and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, Wafa Amr in Ramallah, Will Rasmussen in Rafah, Egypt and Aziz El-Kaissouni in Cairo; Writing by Adam Entous; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

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