Egypt to close Gaza border on Sunday

Image: Palestinians walk along a section of the destroyed border fence
Palestinians walk along a section of the destroyed border fence between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on Saturday.Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Egypt will close its breached border with Gaza on Sunday, and Hamas will not stand in the way, a Hamas leader said Saturday after holding talks with Egyptian officials.

At the same time, Egypt has agreed to coordinate with Hamas on some border issues and to enable thousands of Palestinians stuck in Egypt to head to third countries for which they have visas or residency permits, said Gaza's Hamas strongman, Mahmoud Zahar.

Egyptian officials were not available for comment on the Hamas claims.

It was unclear whether the border would be sealed completely, as it was before Hamas blew up sections of the border wall on Jan. 23, ending a seven-month blockade by Israel and Egypt.

It also was not clear to what extent, if at all, Hamas' demand to be given a say in running the Egypt-Gaza border was being considered.

Since the breach, hundreds of thousands of Gazans have flooded Egypt's border area and Hamas has thwarted repeated attempts by Egypt to reseal the border.

Zahar, widely seen as the mastermind of Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza in June, said Egyptian officials told him they would restore order at the border.

"Egypt's message was very clear, that Sunday should be the day to put an end to this scene," Zahar told the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera.

Hamas breached the border several days after Israel imposed a complete blockade on Gaza, with Egyptian backing, in response to a rocket barrage from Gaza on Israeli border towns. Since Hamas' takeover of Gaza, Israel and Egypt have severely restricted access to the territory.

Any role for the Islamic militants on the border was sure to anger the international community and Hamas' chief Palestinian rival, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. A formal role for Hamas would amount to tacit recognition of its rule in Gaza.

Earlier this week, Egypt and Abbas endorsed restoring a 2005 border arrangement in which European monitors deployed on the Palestinian side prevented smuggling of weapons and militants, and Israel watched traffic by closed-circuit TV.

Abbas has proposed sending loyalist security forces to the border, to get around the international boycott of Hamas and ensure the crossing is open.

Hamas has said it opposes the 2005 arrangement because it granted Israel a final say over when the Gaza-Egypt border is open. The EU monitors are based in Israel, which has in the past frequently asked the monitors to stay away on security grounds, in effect shutting down border operations.

Zahar suggested Saturday that Hamas is flexible about the extent of its role on the border, but wants Israel and the EU to be excluded from running it.

"The crossing has to be open because it's an Egytian-Palestinian crossing," he said. "There have been obstacles ... in the past due to Israeli intervention, and European Union and Israeli pressure. All of these contributed to the siege of the Palestinian people."

The EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, was expected to arrive in Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials later Saturday. The international Mideast envoy, Tony Blair, also was planning a trip to the region in coming days, to address the border standoff.

In a related development, the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, said he would like to see Gaza's economy cut from Israel, and instead receive fuel and electricity from Egypt.

"We have said from the days of our election campaign that we want to move toward economic disengagement from the Israeli occupation," Haniyeh told the pro-Hamas daily Palestine.

"Egypt has a greater ability to meet the needs of Gaza," he said.

Israel, which pulled out of Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, supplies all of Gaza's fuel and more than two-thirds of its electricity. Egypt supplies about 5 percent of Gaza's electricity.