Egyptian Crackdown Rattles Hamas

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -

Egypt’s new government has imposed the toughest border restrictions on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in years, sealing smuggling tunnels, blocking most passenger traffic and causing millions of dollars in economic losses.

Some in Hamas fear the movement is being swept up in the same Egyptian military campaign that earlier this month toppled the country’s democratically elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi — like the Gaza rulers, part of the region’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt’s military has said the Gaza restrictions are part of its security crackdown in the Sinai Peninsula and has not suggested it is trying to weaken the Hamas government or bring it down in the process.

However, the new Gaza border restrictions are tougher than any enforced by Morsi’s pro-Western predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, a foe of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Gaza residents and Hamas officials.

And an ongoing border closure is bound to further weaken Hamas’ popularity in Gaza, as the economy takes a new hit and Gazans are once again unable to travel.

“It’s getting worse every day,” Gaza City taxi driver Khaled Jaradeh said of the shortage of cheap Egyptian fuel caused by the closure. Jaradeh was waiting in a slow-moving line outside a gas station, with about 30 cars in front of him.

“Even when Mubarak was president, we used to get fuel through the tunnels,” Jaradeh said.

At the time of Morsi’s ouster, some officials in Palestinian
Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, Hamas’ main rival, privately expressed hope that the Hamas government would be next.

Hamas leaders have been careful not to criticize Egypt’s border clampdown in public, for fear of being accused of meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs. However, Gaza’s top Hamas official, Ismail Haniyeh, has complained that Egyptian media reports “about Hamas interference in the Egyptian affairs in support of President Morsi are not true.”

Some Egyptian media outlets have described Hamas as a troublemaker aiding Muslim  terrorists in Egypt’s lawless Sinai, next to Gaza. Morsi is believed to have held back on security clampdowns for fear of angering more radical supporters.

An Egyptian intelligence official who often meets with Israeli counterparts told The Associated Press that several weeks before his ouster, Morsi ordered the army to stop storming homes on the Gaza border suspected of operating tunnels.

The order was made shortly after Morsi held a roundtable with tribal leaders from northern Sinai and security officers at the presidential palace, according to the official. The official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to release the information to reporters, said military leaders were unhappy with the decision, saying Hamas used the smuggling routes to buy and sell weapons.