GAZA CITY: After months of isolation in its Gaza fiefdom, Hamas has returned to regional centre stage with a bang after militants blew open the border with Egypt to break an Israeli blockade.

A Hamas delegation has been invited for talks in Cairo on Wednesday as Egypt scrambles to restore order to its frontiers while the Islamists’ popularity on the Arab street has received a major fillip.

“Hamas has been able to be a driver of events in the region and is able to carry out and determine facts on the ground,” Nicolas Pelham, of the Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group (ICG), said.

He said the Islamists had displayed political nous in their handling of the Arab media after Israel imposed its crippling lockdown on the Gaza Strip earlier this month.

The scenes of candlelit vigils on the streets of a blacked-out Gaza after Israel cut fuel supplies to the territory’s sole power plant drew such sympathy across the Arab world that President Hosni Mubarak had little choice but to order his security forces to stand back and allow Gazans to cross.

“The operation was remarkably prepared and choreographed for several months,” Pelham said.

“Israel and the US exercised pressure from above and Hamas from below.

“At the end of the day Egypt was deeply concerned by the role of the popular sympathy and it became a domestic issue for the Egyptians.” Gaza political science professor Jihad Hamad said that Hamas had managed to turn the tables on Israel which had been putting growing pressure on the Islamists through the blockade and a spate of raids on the group’s commanders.

“Hamas understood that it was really threatened,” Hamad said.

“To open the border in this manner was the only alternative possible and has allowed it to return to the centre of the political stage. It has clearly won a battle” in its war with Israel.

Palestinian analyst Mehdi Abdel Hadi said the opening of the border was also a major boost for Hamas in its rivalry with the secular Fatah faction of president Mahmud Abbas, whose forces it ousted from Gaza last June.

“Hamas has gained in popularity both in Gaza and in the West Bank while Abbas is yet more weakened,” said Abdel Hadi.

Abbas, who has not spoken to Hamas since it seized Gaza, was due to hold separate talks with Mubarak in Cairo on Wednesday.

It was Abbas’s Palestinian Authority that signed an agreement with Israel in 2005 establishing special procedures for the Egypt-Gaza border, including European Union monitors and cameras allowing Israel to see those passing through the Rafah crossing.To the anger of Abbas’s government in the West Bank political capital of Ramallah, Hamas now wants those procedures overturned.

“We want an Egyptian-Palestinian border crossing without Israeli control or an international presence,” Hamas member of parliament Salah al-Bardawil said.

“That is the demand that we will present to Egypt.” Prime Minister Salam Fayyad countered that international borders were still the prerogative of the Palestinian Authority which remained bound by the 2005 agreement.

“The Palestinian Authority has the legal authority to administer the crossings. This is our role, and we will carry it out,” said Fayyad.

“With the Rafah crossing there is a prior international agreement to operate it with a number parties including the European Union.” But for an Egyptian government desperate to regularise the situation on Gaza border, there is little option but to talk to the territory’s effective masters who control the situation on the ground.

And Hamas is adamant that it will not accept the 2005 deal. “The Palestinian people reject the occupation and will not allow for any Israeli hegemony over the Rafah crossing,” said the movement’s spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.—AFP

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