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Gaza border crisis roils Israeli-Egypt relationship
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    CAIRO, Egypt — The flood of Palestinians out of Gaza is fraying relations between Israel and Egypt — ostensible partners in peace but now bitterly at odds over the border chaos — undercutting the chances that President Bush’s Mideast initiative will succeed.
    The scenes of Palestinians rushing to buy food and other goods Wednesday at the Egyptian border town of Rafah emphasized a core dilemma: The parties pushing for peace, including Israel, Egypt, the United States and moderate Palestinians, have never figured out a unified way to deal with Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that seized control of Gaza eight months ago.
    All sides view the current situation, with Hamas in control of Gaza and thus of one side of the Gaza-Egyptian border, as unsustainable. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of the need to ‘‘think creatively about how to deal with the (border) situation.’’
    But the search for a solution to both Gaza and the border, and a subsequent lowering of friction between Israel and Egypt, as well as between Israel and the Arab world, could be frustrated as long as Hamas controls the strip.
    Why are Israel and Egypt — one of just two Arab nations to recognize Israel and a longtime supporter of broader peace — working in ways that hurt each other so badly?
    Their peace has never been a warm one. But tensions have grown in the last few months, usually because of Hamas.
    Israel insists Egypt is doing too little to stop the smuggling of weapons and money to Hamas, via tunnels running from Egypt into Gaza.
    Israeli officials were furious earlier this month when Egypt allowed Muslim Hajj pilgrims allied with Hamas back into Gaza, assuming, quite reasonably, that they would carry needed money back to Hamas.
    Hamas has been launching a steady stream of rocket attacks from Gaza onto Israeli border towns. When those attacks spiked recently, Israel imposed an almost-total closure on Gaza, causing outrage across the Arab world about a looming Gaza humanitarian crisis.
    That put Egypt in a rough position.
    It has largely kept its border with Gaza closed since the Hamas takeover, fearing a spillover of Hamas-style militancy onto its own territory.
    But Egypt also faces enormous public pressure to help the Palestinians trapped in Gaza, short on electricity and other staples. Arab television stations have focused on nothing but the Gaza situation in recent days, creating a huge backlash against Israel all across the Arab world.
    ‘‘Egypt is confronted with what for them is a nasty dilemma’’ — put in the position of being ‘‘co-jailer of Gaza Palestinians,’’ said Mouin Rabbani, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank in Jordan.
    Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he told his forces to let the Gazans in, once they tried to push across, as a humanitarian gesture. He would face a serious crisis if Egyptian forces ever opened fire on Palestinians in a border melee.
    Of course, Mubarak also had political motives: He wants to ensure the United States recognizes Egypt’s importance to any peace effort, and thus listens respectfully to its point of view and complaints.
    Egypt’s specific complaint, right now, is that it can only control the Gaza border if it places more forces there. But the Camp David accords that set the peace between Egypt and Israel more than 25 years ago limit the number of troops Egypt can put at the border and Israel won’t agree to any increase.
    As the standoff over that issue has grown, the two neighbors have fought publicly.
    Egypt was furious when Israel’s supporters took their case to the U.S. Congress last fall, circulating a videotape of Egyptian soldiers allowing Palestinian arms smuggling. That resulted in new restrictions on U.S. foreign and military aid to Egypt.
    Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in turn, recently said Egypt was doing a ‘‘terrible’’ job policing the border. Egypt then criticized and belittled her and said it would retaliate diplomatically.
    The United States has tried to play negotiator on the issue of troops at the border. It also has tried to find practical solutions to stop the smuggling: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will soon begin training Egyptian security forces on how to use new high-tech equipment to detect border tunnels.
    And the Bush administration took pains Wednesday to blame Hamas for causing the crisis by sending rockets toward Israel, and insisting Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts would not be derailed.
    State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey also said there was no indication Wednesday’s human surge had affected Egyptian-Israeli relations.
    But another moderate Arab ally of the United States, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, signaled the seriousness of the crisis by saying Israel could expect no peace progress while enforcing the closure of Gaza.
    Meanwhile, Israel and Egypt continued sniping.
    Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman said Egypt held the responsibility for solving the immediate border crisis. His Egyptian counterpart snapped back that no, the whole thing was in Israel’s lap.
    Sally Buzbee is the AP’s Chief of Middle East News, based in Cairo.

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