EGYPTIAN TROOPS RECENTLY sealed the border with the Gaza Strip, ending 12 days of freedom of movement for Palestinians. The Egyptian troops are still allowing Palestinians and Egyptians to return home, but have stopped--according to recent reports--the free flow of cross-border movement.
It is unclear, however, how many Palestinians made it back to a Hamas-controlled Gaza. Many didn't have an economic incentive to return: Gaza is a place in which approximately 80 percent of the population relies on food aid and the other 20 percent lives mainly on the incomes of civil servants, NGO workers, or international organizations. This was not the case prior to the Hamas era. Following the Hamas takeover, however, and the beginning of the current standoff with Israel, it seems that Gaza is able to manufacture little more than the short-range missiles that continue to barrage the Israeli side of the border. The besieged Hamas government does not appear to be keen on changing that situation. It spends most of its own energy on further escalating the standoff--with some degree of success.
The border incident, initiated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, allowed some otherwise unwelcome guests to enter Gaza. The Bethlehem-based Maan news agency quoted Hamas sources as estimating the number of Arab men who had entered the Gaza Strip as new residents at 2,000. Many of these men, according to Egyptian sources, toured a number of Hamas-affiliated training bases and security installations and expressed their desire to remain in the Gaza Strip and launch attacks against Israel. Some of the men, according to Arab sources, had recently fled from Iraq, where they had been carrying out attacks against U.S. troops.
Where else did they come from? A Sunni Muslim website that carries statements of al Qaeda reported last week on the arrival of at least four Saudi militants to Gaza through Egypt. The members-only website, al-ekhlaas.net, said that the four Saudis, one from Riyadh and three from Jeddah, entered Gaza with the help of an Egyptian guide. Sada Usama, the author of that site, is said to have spoken with the men who had arrived safely. He called on other Saudis to enter Gaza.
"Hamas has turned the Gaza Strip into an international center for global jihad," said one Palestinian Authority official to the Jerusalem Post. This official claimed that, "Most of the men who entered the Gaza Strip through the breached border are now being trained in Hamas's camps and schools." Another PA security official told the Jerusalem Post that, according to his information, dozens of al Qaeda operatives have managed to enter the Gaza Strip in the past two weeks. He said some of them had already been recruited to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. "They brought with them tons of explosives and various types of weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles," he told the paper, and added that a number of Iranian security experts had also entered the Gaza Strip to help train members of Hamas and other armed groups.
This is enough to get the Egyptians worried. In a rare comment, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said in an interview on state television that, "Anyone who breaches the border will have their legs broken."
This latest episode in Gaza probably means yet another escalation of the standoff--fighting will again claim the lives of civilians from both sides of the fence. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to Gaza's problems. As long as the priority in Gaza remains one of fighting at all costs, Gaza's residents are destined to further suffering. Egypt is not interested in an open border policy or in further assisting a Hamas-controlled Gaza, since this might imply a responsibility for the Gazans that Egypt does not want. Israel, still under constant attack from Gaza, continues to retaliate, thus far keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. If there is a key to Gaza, it lies with the Palestinians who live there, who should demand that their government start looking out for its people rather than focusing on killing the "enemy." For that to happen, however, an alternative Palestinian leadership will need to break the Hamas wall. Otherwise--and in the meantime--Gaza will continue to burn.
Nir Boms is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.