New winds in Mideast favor Hamas

The New York Times reports: For years, the imposing black gate that sealed the border between Egypt and Gaza symbolized the pain and isolation that decades of conflict have wrought on this tiny coastal strip, especially under Hamas in recent years.

But recently, the gate has come to represent a new turn for the increasingly confident Hamas leadership. The twin arches of the border crossing have swung open twice in recent weeks for V.I.P. arrivals, first to receive hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails as one captive Israeli soldier moved in the other direction, and a second time for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to visit Gaza for the first time in decades.

Both instances lifted the fortunes of the Islamists at a critical time ahead of negotiations scheduled to be held in Cairo this week with their main rival, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who leads the Fatah party.

Hamas’s leader, Khalid Meshal, arrives at those talks with a sense of regional winds at his back. Dictators have fallen, replaced by protest movements and governments that include the Islamist movements those dictators suppressed. Hamas has lost no opportunity to highlight this development as it basks in the growing regional importance of its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and most powerful Islamist movement in the world.

“This is a hot Arab winter that has not until now ripened into spring,” a Hamas official, Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, proclaimed in Gaza last month as he claimed the Arab revolutions for Islamic revivalism. The campaigns to oust corrupted leaders have reached a “critical stage,” he said, before concluding, “With God’s help, next year we will see the flowering of Islam.”

Mr. Abbas, by contrast, arrives with mixed success for his plan to gain United Nations recognition of statehood for Palestine. He has gained huge domestic support — polls are 80 percent in his favor — but the bid has faltered and he has alienated a crucial ally in Washington.

Hamas, on the other hand, trumpets its success in trading one captive Israeli soldier, Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit, for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, hoping that the Egyptian-brokered exchange will erase Palestinians’ memories of the increased isolation and blockades that Gaza suffered during Sergeant Shalit’s captivity.

Boaz Ganor, an Israeli security analyst and the founder of the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism, believes that Hamas is now “much stronger” than it was before. The Shalit deal, he believes, was part of a “very detailed, sophisticated plan” by Hamas, which the United States and the European Union have labeled a terrorist organization, to break free from its Gaza enclave and secure greater legitimacy “at least in the international arena, if not in the eyes of Israel,” before Palestinian elections, scheduled for May.

“As long as they were holding an Israeli soldier against the Geneva Conventions and so forth, they would not be regarded as a legitimate candidate,” he said.

Both Hamas and Fatah leaders say that the Cairo talks will focus on setting up a unity transitional government of technocrats to take Palestinians through to elections, already long overdue.

Nabil Shaath, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, said that the talks would focus on unity, nonviolence and finding a cabinet and a prime minister acceptable to both sides. He said there was now a “much better opportunity” for agreement. Hamas had enjoyed success with the prisoner swap, and Fatah gained domestic support for the statehood bid, he said, and “success reduces the need for competition.”

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