Egypt Won't Permanently Open Border With Gaza

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Israeli warplanes pounded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for a third consecutive day Monday. The Jewish state is prepared to launch a possible invasion after killing more than 300 Palestinians in air raids. Tension along the border between Gaza and Egypt is tense as Gazans try to escape the chaos. Hamas wants the border open permanently — Egypt refuses.


This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. The Gaza Strip is a war zone for a third consecutive day. Israeli warplanes are again striking Hamas targets, and the Palestinians are again firing targets into southern Israel. In a moment, we'll hear from a Middle East scholar on what needs to happen on the diplomatic front. We go now to Peter Kenyon, our Cairo correspondent, who is in Egypt near the border with Gaza. Good morning.

PETER KENYON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Peter, what can you tell us about what's happening on Egypt's side of the border?

KENYON: Well, I can tell you that the road to the border area is filled with military trucks, carrying large numbers of Egyptian security forces to the border area. At the same time, the Egyptian government has decided to slow down permissions for journalists, so it's hard for some of us to get as close as we would like. But it is clear that they are more concerned now about tensions on the border and possible ground offensive, sometime in the future.

I spoke with a Palestinian inside Gaza this morning. He works for a European NGO. He said the overnight air strikes were severe. One was quite close to his house. That may explain it partly. He added that the feeling in Gaza is that the Israelis will make a ground invasion; no one knows when. And Hamas fighters appear to be preparing defensive positions. Now, the border crossing was briefly open yesterday and dozens of ambulances and medical supplies did get across. But Hamas has been demanding a full and permanent opening of that border with Egypt, and that's something Egypt has refused to do so far.

MONTAGNE: Well, I gather there were flashes of violence yesterday involving Egyptians and those Palestinians who were trying to leave Gaza.

KENYON: That's exactly right. There was an attempt to break through the border. As you know, that happened once before and thousands streamed across. This time, there was exchanges of gunfire between Palestinians and Egyptian border guards. One guard and one Palestinian were reported killed. This may, in part, explain the increased tensions we're feeling and the increase in the security forces on this side. Egypt has said it will do what's necessary to protect the integrity of its border as a sovereign state. But of course, in the face of increased suffering of the Palestinians, that's a very unpopular position to take in the Arab world right now.

MONTAGNE: Well, Egypt is walking a delicate path in its relationship with the rest of the Arab world when it comes to what's happening there in Gaza.

KENYON: Very much on the defensive, I would say, right now when it comes to helping the Palestinians, largely because of its ambivalent feelings toward Hamas. Now, Egypt has officially banned its own Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood. It sees Hamas in the same light. Egypt's much more comfortable dealing with the secular Fatah movement and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Yesterday, Abbas and Egypt's foreign minister both blamed Hamas for much of the current troubles. This was never a problem under Yasser Arafat because Hamas was more in the background, but especially since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip last year, Egypt is now forced to deal directly with the Islamists, and those relations are difficult at best.

MONTAGNE: And what about the broader Arab reaction? It is not, as one might expect, entirely unified.

KENYON: Not at all, Renee. In fact, I would say very split. I think the divisions within the Palestinian factions are also reflected in the Arab world at large. And then you add to that the complications of regional allies and international powers, with the West, the U.S. and the West pushing a pro-Fatah agenda essentially, and Syria and Iran supporting Hamas very strongly, and some officials on that side, even now calling for a third Intifada, a general uprising against Israel. The result is, of course, great difficulty for people like the Arab League, groups like that, to come to any meaningful consensus. They're meeting in Cairo on Wednesday. But these diplomatic difficulties may prove to be minor if the situation just gets worse in Gaza. If, for example, there's a bloody ground war, the pressure on Egypt to open the border will only increase.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking with us from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, near the border with Gaza. Thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Renee.

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