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Gaza Watches Egypt Protests With Fear And Envy

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And the Egyptian uprising is causing political rumblings throughout the Arab world. One place that could be directly affected is one of Egypt's volatile neighbors, a neighbor with which it shares a border, the Gaza Strip.

NPR's Philip Reeves paid a visit.

PHILIP REEVES: In a refugee camp in the middle of Gaza, a quiet celebration is underway. A line of men is waiting to welcome home Ayman Ahmed Noufal. Not so long ago, Noufal was stuck inside an Egyptian prison with no prospect of getting out. He managed to escape during a mass jail break amid the chaos of the Egyptian uprising. He's just slipped back home through one of the many tunnels used for smuggling goods from Egypt into the blockaded in Gaza Strip.

AYMAN AHMED NOUFAL: (Through translator) I am really very proud and satisfied to come back.

REEVES: Noufal is a commander with the al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. His return is causing alarm in Israel, where he's considered a terrorist. The Egyptians arrested him several years ago, alleging he was planning bombing attacks there. Right now, Noufal's standing in a big tent full of green flags, banners bearing his picture, and people celebrating his escape with sweets and coffee.

The men lining up are from Hamas's security forces, policemen and soldiers with Kalashnikovs slung across their backs. One by one, they step forward and give Noufal a big hug. Noufal's wearing a slight smile, which vanishes when the subject of his prison stint comes up.

AHMED NOUFAL: (Through translator) I felt very frustrated, very angry, because I was arrested by a regime which claimed that they are helping and supporting the Palestinian regime. But if helping Palestinians by arresting the resistance, God is damning such a regime.

REEVES: Noufal hopes the Egyptian uprising will bring about the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

AHMED NOUFAL: (Through translator) It will be good not only for Gazans, for all the Muslims, for all the nations. We are getting rid of a dictatorship who was very bad.

REEVES: Many of the Palestinians in Gaza would agree with that, but some would not.

Palestinians are surprisingly divided in their view of the Egyptian uprising and of Mubarak.

NADER FAISAL: I respect this man. I respect his personality.

REEVES: Nader Faisal, a post-grad student, is having coffee in a side street café. He favors political reforms in Egypt but thinks Mubarak should stay. He has some questions for those behind the uprising.

PHICE: After this regime, what you do? Can you give me plans?

REEVES: You think everyone here would be opposed to Mubarak. After all, Egypt cooperates with Israel in blockading the Gaza Strip, deepening widespread poverty and deprivation. But it's more complicated than that.

Palestinian analysts say under Mubarak, Egypt's fulfilled an important role in Palestinian internal politics as a mediator, seeking to bridge the rift between the Palestinian Authority that governs the West Bank and Hamas, which rules Gaza. Egypt's also played a key part in Palestinian negotiations with Israel.

OMAR SHABAN: Palestinian want the relationship between Israel and Egypt to be good in order to enable Egypt, for example, to prevent Israeli attack to Gaza. Bad things between Israel and Egypt is not good for the Palestinian.

REEVES: Political commentator Omar Shaban says many Palestinians do resent Mubarak's role in blockading the Gaza Strip. But he says others look further back in history. They remember that Mubarak helped preserve Palestinian nationalism by refusing to annex Gaza. Shaban says back in 1979, when Israel and Egypt sealed their peace treaty, Egypt came under a lot of pressure over this.

SHABAN: It was offered many times. It was suggested many times by Israeli leaders, that Gaza should be part of Egypt.

REEVES: As the Egyptian uprising continues along its uncertain path, some in Gaza worry about what'll happen next. The blockade's recently been eased, allowing more food and supplies than before. They don't want it tightened again. Some fear if there's a new government in Egypt hostile to Israel, the Israeli military could again take over Gaza's southern border to stop arms flowing into the Strip.

Back in his tent, as he greets his supporters, Ayman Ahmed Noufal of Hamas knows exactly what he wants to happen next.

AHMED NOUFAL: (Through translator) I hope the Muslim Brotherhood will rule Egypt and I think that the future will have justice, will have hope, will have happiness, and will have Islam.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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