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Pressure mounts on Hamas as economic lifelines are cut


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip » The tumult roiling the Arab world had already severed the lifeline between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and two of its most important patrons, Iran and Syria.

Now, the dismantling of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood by the new military-backed government that ousted the Islamist president has Hamas reeling without crucial economic and diplomatic support. Over the past two weeks, a "crisis cell" of ministers has met daily. With Gaza’s economy facing a $250 million shortfall since Egypt shut down hundreds of smuggling tunnels, the Hamas government has begun to ration some resources.

Its leaders have even mulled publicly what for years would have been unthinkable: inviting the presidential guard loyal to rival Fatah back to help keep the border with Egypt open.

The mounting pressure on Hamas has implications beyond the 141 square miles of this coastal strip it has ruled since 2007. It could serve to strengthen President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and his more moderate Fatah faction that dominates the West Bank just as Washington-orchestrated peace talks get underway. It also adds another volatile element to the rapidly changing landscape across the region, where sectarian tensions have led to bloodshed and the Islamists rise to power through the ballot box has been blocked.

"Now, Hamas is an orphan," said Akram Atallah, a political analyst and columnist, referring to the fact that the movement sprang from Egypt’s Brotherhood a quarter century ago. "Hamas was dreaming and going up with its dreams that the Islamists were going to take over in all the capitals. Those dreams have been dashed."

The tide of the Arab Spring initially buoyed Hamas, helping bolster Iran and Syria, which provided the Gazan leadership weapons and cash, while undermining President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who was deeply distrustful and hostile to the group. But Hamas eventually sided with the Sunni opposition in the civil war in Syria — alienating President Bashar Assad and his Iranian backers. That was offset when Mubarak was replaced by Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood man and ideological ally who relaxed the borders and brokered talks between Hamas and the hostile West, as well as its Palestinian rivals.

With Egypt’s military crackdown, Morsi in detention and the Brotherhood leadership either locked up, dead or in hiding, smuggling between Gaza and Egypt has come to a virtual halt. That means no access to building materials, fuel that costs less than half as much as that imported from Israel, and many other cheap commodities Gazans had come to rely on.

Egypt kept the Rafah crossing point closed for days — stranding thousands of students, business people, medical patients, foreigners and Gazans who live abroad. Adding to Hamas’ isolation, the new emir of Qatar, another benefactor, is said to be far less a fan than his father and predecessor.

In interviews here this week, as well as in public speeches, several Hamas leaders insisted that the Egypt crisis makes repairing the Palestinian rift more urgent. Instead, it already appears more elusive, with the loss of Cairo as the host and broker for reconciliation talks.

Seizing on its opponent’s weakness, the Fatah Revolutionary Council plans to consider declaring Gaza a "rebel province" at a leadership meeting Sunday with Abbas, which would tighten the noose by curtailing Palestinian Authority financing of operations in the strip. Fatah and Hamas officials said that both have increased arrests of the other’s operatives in recent weeks. The Hamas leaders here blame Fatah for what they call a "vicious campaign" against them in the Egyptian news media.

"You can feel the heat because of what’s happening in Egypt," said Ahmed Yousef, a former Haniya aide who now runs a Gaza research group called House of Wisdom. "The tense relations between Gaza and Ramallah has been intensified. Everybody is suspicious."

In separate interviews this week, three senior Hamas leaders — Ziad el-Zaza, the finance minister and deputy prime minister; Ghazi Hamad, who handles foreign affairs; and Mahmoud al-Zahar, a hard-liner — said they were taking a "wait and see" approach to Egypt, hoping that perhaps the tide could turn their way. They imagined that a public backlash against what they called a coup could yet lead to the Brotherhood’s resurgence.

"Our policy right now is to keep the people quiet," al-Zahar said. "We have to keep our people highly immunized against the extreme attitude."

El-Zaza, the finance minister, declined to say what spending was being cut beyond the use of government cars and expense accounts.

All three said Hamas had been through worse: Israeli bombings and assassinations, exiles from Arab capitals, months-long closures of the Rafah crossing during Mubarak’s reign.

"The region is in labor," Hamad said. "It’s a time of difficulty, time of challenges."

The opposition here has been emboldened by the events across the border. A new youth movement called Tamarod — Arabic for rebellion — after an Egyptian group that helped bring down Morsi, released a YouTube video urging the overthrow of Hamas and a Facebook page calling for mass demonstrations Nov. 11. An engineering student who is among the group’s founders and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said Hamas had detained at least 50 of Tamarod’s Facebook fans this week, and that he and several others had been jailed, placed under house arrest and had their mobile phones and computers seized.

"Maybe Hamas leaders are afraid of what happened in Egypt," he said.

Several experts said toppling Hamas would be tough. Unlike the Brotherhood, Hamas controls the security forces and service institutions in Gaza as well as its politics. And so far, the rhythm of life appeared to carry on.

Qatar-financed workers were widening the main north-south road this week. Kiosks were crammed with cartoon-character backpacks ahead of school opening Sunday. The Ferris wheel at a Hamas-run amusement park continued to turn.

But at the Rafah crossing, hundreds of desperate would-be travelers waited in vain for days. The gleaming, air-conditioned terminal opened last year was empty but for a handful of Hamas workers watching Al-Jazeera, its baggage carousel idle, an electronic sign flashing "Welcome to Gaza" to nobody.

Egypt announced Friday that it would reopen the border on a limited basis Saturday, after not allowing anyone to leave since Aug. 15, after the government’s deadly raids on two Islamist protest camps.

Although Gazans have suffered from intermittent Rafah closures for years, this time many dismissed the ostensible security rationale and saw it as collective political punishment.

"The governments are fighting, and we pay the price," said Ahmed Muqat, 20, who was trying to get back to medical school in Turkey. "Things are going from worse to worse."

Dalia Radi, 22, got married Aug. 15, but instead of a honeymoon, spent the week sitting on plastic chairs in a parking lot outside the crossing. For Radi, whose new husband has lived in Norway for six years, it would have been her first time leaving Gaza.

For Mayy Jawadeh, a 21-year-old student at the University of Tunisia, it may be the last.

"I will never come back again to Gaza," Jawadeh said. "Here, no rights for humans – no electricity, no water, you can’t travel. Hamas interferes in Egypt and we bear the brunt."

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