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Egypt can play key role in reasoning with Hamas

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Hamas's ambitious demands for a ceasefire make clear that it will continue to sacrifice more Palestinian lives rather than stop fighting with the Israeli military.

Each hour of bloodshed that passes raises the odds that Israel will invade the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, greatly increasing the stakes of the hostilities. So far, in an exchange of air and rocket attacks, three Israelis and about 100 Palestinians have died. When Israeli forces last conducted a ground assault on Gaza in 2008-9, 13 Israelis and more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed.

Israel's effort to limit strikes to Hamas members and facilities is already falling short. Targeting a Hamas communications antenna, Israel also destroyed journalists' offices over the weekend. Gaza officials say a third of Palestinian fatalities have been women and children. For its part, Hamas makes no effort in its rocket and mortar attacks on Israel to avoid civilian losses.

Egypt offers the best hope for securing a ceasefire, given its ties to both Israel and Hamas. Hamas sprang from the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party rules Egypt.

Why would anyone expect Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who has come out solidly on the side of Hamas, to help? For one thing, he faces the same threat that confronts not just Hamas but also Israel: the surge among Salafis, Islamists more extreme even than Hamas.

The current conflict was sparked by the firing of hundreds of rockets into Israel from Gaza, mainly by Salafis. Since the collapse of authority in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula that accompanied President Hosni Mubarak's fall, Salafis have created havoc there as well, killing 16 Egyptian border soldiers in August. Hundreds of illegal smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Sinai have enabled Salafis to come and go between the two areas and to easily move arms into Gaza.

Fearful that the Salafis would steal its mantle of resistance, Hamas increasingly disregarded the de facto cease- fire it had observed with Israel since the 2008-9 incursion. Its fighters began to take part in rocket and mortar strikes; its security forces turned a blind eye to attacks by other groups.

Morsi, on the other hand, has opted to get tough, cracking down on Salafi violence in Sinai after the deaths in August. Even if he were prepared to put up with Salafi lawlessness, he would have to contend with an Egyptian military establishment that certainly is not.

What's more, Morsi knows that to stay in power he and the Freedom and Justice Party must win elections, and they will only do so if Egypt's economy improves. Inflaming the conflict by encouraging Hamas could put that goal at risk. The country relies on the European Union for $6.3 billion in annual assistance and on the United States for $1.5 billion in annual aid, $1 billion in debt forgiveness and support for a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan. Working to end the fighting could earn Morsi considerable goodwill.

So how might Egypt broker a ceasefire? To begin, Morsi and his deputies should explain to Hamas officials what is off the table. Hamas has demanded that Israel end its restrictions on what enters and leaves the Gaza Strip. This is an audacious request, coming days after Hamas for the first time deployed rockets capable of reaching Israel's major cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Hamas says it built the rockets and launchers; much more likely, they were imported from Iran.

Second, Hamas wants a guarantee that Israel will no longer target its leaders, such as security chief Ahmed al-Jabari, who was assassinated Nov. 14 by Israel. In any agreement, Israel will surely retain the freedom to choose its response to Hamas aggression. And Israel has no reason to stop the violence before Hamas, especially given that Hamas was the provocateur.

What would Hamas get in a ceasefire? For now, it would avoid an Israeli invasion and the death and destruction that would go with it. The longer play would be to align Egypt, Hamas and Israel against the Salafis and restore the relative stability that existed before the rise of the ultra-extremists.

Egypt would have to get serious about finding and closing the Gaza-Sinai tunnels. Hamas, which taxes tunnel commerce, won't like that. Yet if weapons and terrorist smuggling can be cleaned up, eventually Israel could be coaxed into regularizing Gaza's borders, a goal that Hamas supports because it would encourage economic activity.

The Egyptians will also need to counter the Salafi threat in Sinai itself. The Israelis have already allowed Egyptian deployments in Sinai beyond the limits specified in the Egypt- Israel peace treaty. They could help more by temporarily lifting troop restrictions. To stanch Salafi recruitment, Sinai needs economic rehabilitation, too. U.S. and European donors should support job-creation efforts in agriculture and tourism.

Beating back the Salafi threat offers a chance to return to an imperfect but preferable status quo. The choice is up to Hamas, to accept help against its internal foe or face another debacle in Gaza.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 21, 2012 A11

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