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Hizbollah rally has many targets

Gathering in support of Palestinians in Gaza will also put pressure on Arab governments to push Egypt to open Rafah border crossing.

BEIRUT // As the situation in the Gaza Strip deteriorates behind both the Israeli blockade and the refusal of Hamas to extend a six-month ceasefire, Hizbollah and its allies plan a massive demonstration for Beirut today, both to support the Palestinian cause and humiliate Arab leaders for failing to support them. In announcing the demonstration, which should draw hundreds of thousands of supporters, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah chief, declared that support for the Palestinians in the tiny, besieged Gaza Strip is a "religious and humanitarian duty" in light of the massive shortages of food, medicine and fuel imposed by a tight Israeli blockade.

Israel has refused to recognise the Hamas-led government of the Gaza Strip, which was elected in early 2006 before seizing complete control of the sandy coastal enclave of over 1.5 million Palestinians from forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority, controlled by the Fatah movement. Since the ouster of Fatah in summer of 2007, Israel has frequently refused to allow commercial traffic into Gaza through the crossings it controls and has pressured Egypt to also blockade the entrances on its border.

Ibrahim Moussawi, the editor of al-Manar television, is considered very close to Hizbollah and describes the decision to demonstrate as humanitarian with political overtones. "It's not directed at Egypt," he said of the protests. There's a humanitarian issue with the Israeli occupation and siege. Sayyid Hasan's statements have tried to take this out of politics, religion and even the Arab world. But he did call upon Egypt to open the Rafah crossing to the Palestinians in defiance of the Israelis."

Dr Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an expert on Hizbollah in Beirut, agrees that the main intention might be support for the Palestinian cause, but sees a major political benefit for Hizbollah, a Shiite Muslim organisation that has been criticised throughout the Arab world for resorting to violence in a power struggle with the Sunni-led government in May. "Hizbollah cannot remain silent on the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza," she said. "Of course they can't just say 'We'll invade and liberate Jerusalem.' But they have to support the Palestinians in what is starting to look like a fight for their survival."

But despite one demonstration having little chance of changing Israeli policies, Dr Saad-Ghorayeb said the demonstration will put not only Egypt, but other Arab regimes, "under massive pressure, both domestically and regionally, to force Egypt to allow the Rafah crossing to be opened". Egypt's role as the keeper of the western border of Gaza, where United Nations officials have repeatedly warned that the food aid-dependent population is in constant danger of severe hardship, has placed it squarely in the target of Syria, Iran and Hizbollah, who are adamant supporters of violent resistance to the Israeli occupation including the Hamas movement in Gaza.

A series of anti-Egyptian demonstrations in Iran last week protesting the continued closure of Rafah badly strained relations between the two countries and most observers expect this pressure to continue until the situation is resolved. "The Rafah crossing is a non-stop embarrassment to Hosni Mubarak," Dr Saad-Ghorayeb said of the Egyptian president. "This demonstration is very much aimed at the Egyptian regime but it is also intended to bolster the Hamas government in Gaza in its struggle with Fatah for control of the Palestinian movement."

Although opposed to each other, Hamas and Hizbollah have long enjoyed a close relationship based on mutual pursuit of violent resistance to Israel. Both Syria and Iran support both groups with money, weapons, training and safe havens for offices. But the support for "The Resistance" often pits both countries against Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan for their willingness to negotiate peacefully with Israel and the United States.

"This pressure on Egypt and Israel will, in the eyes of Hizbollah, strengthen the position of Hamas in negotiating with Fatah and Israel over control of Gaza. "Hizbollah blames Egypt for taking blatantly pro-Fatah stances in the negotiations they broker. So pressure on Mubarak over Rafah also helps Hamas in its domestic issues," Dr Saad-Ghorayeb said. mprothero@thenational.ae Palestinians in Gaza divided over extension of truce, page 14

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