Egypt plays arbitrator: Egyptian diplomats are re-starting their efforts to bring Hamas and Fatah together again. But will they be seen by the Hamas powers-that-be as mediators or meddlers? In two special reports--from Cairo and Gaza--Jeff Black and Mel Frykberg analyse how these developments are likely to play out.

Author:Black, Jeff

ON 8 JULY, Egyptian diplomats told local media that the country's official security delegation would shortly be heading back to Hamas-controlled Gaza. The delegation, which has maintained a constant presence in the territory since the beginning of the year, pulled out on 15 June as the Islamic Resistance Movement of Palestine (Hamas), wrested control from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian security apparatus. That event, according to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, was "a coup against legitimacy".

But, legitimate or not, Egypt is now having to come to terms with a Gaza Strip run by Hamas, at least for the time being. The security delegation that represents Egypt's interests there consists of diplomats from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Palestine Department, and officials from Egyptian Intelligence, or Mukhabarat. The purpose of the team's return, say officials, is to return 'security' to the Gaza Strip.

Given the reality of a Hamas-controlled Gaza, and Egyptian discomfort with that reality, questions are now being raised about the latter's involvement in the territory's internecine struggle since the 2006 elections that brought the Islamist movement to power. What has Egypt been doing in Gaza since then? Has the diplomatic offensive helped to ease inter-Palestinian tensions? Or has it merely made them worse? The 14-kilometre sliver of border Gaza and Egypt share is a lifeline for the former and a thorn in the side of the latter. The Gaza-Egypt border, with a single pedestrian crossing point at Rafah, is the Palestinian territory's only physical link with a non-Israeli world. However, since the Israeli pull-out from the Strip in 2005, access through it has been sporadic at best. At times when the border has been closed, Gazans have been trapped on either side. Following the June fghting, up to 5,000 were believed to be waiting on the Egyptian side alone.

For Egypt, policing its side of the border is a headache, mainly because the country is constrained by the terms of its peace agreement with Israel; the eastern third of the Sinai peninsula is off-limits to the Egyptian army.

Instead, the Egyptian police force operating near the border has seemed unable to prevent the gun-running, drug-smuggling, money-laundering and militant movement that takes place through a network of tunnels dug under the fence.

In August 2006, chief of the Israeli internal security service Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, claimed that some 15,000 light weapons and four...

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