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Mar 1, 12:44 PM EST

Gaza fears isolation as Egypt calls Hamas 'terrorist' group

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AP Photo/Khalil Hamra
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Conflict in the Middle East

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Gaza residents said Sunday they fear growing isolation and more hardships after an Egyptian court declared the territory's ruling Hamas a terrorist organization. Some blamed the Islamic militant Hamas while others said Egypt is being unreasonable.

Hamas called for protests against the Egyptian government and issued angry statements, but did not offer a way out of the crisis. Salah Bardaweel, a Hamas spokesman, alleged Sunday that Egypt has become a "direct agent" of Israeli interests.

Hamas urged Saudi Arabia to press Egypt to open the Gaza-Egypt border. Egypt's president met Sunday with the new Saudi king.

Saturday's court ruling signaled Egypt's growing hostility toward Hamas, an offshoot of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt has blamed Hamas for violence in the country's restive Sinai Peninsula, a charge Hamas denies.

Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007, and the territory's borders have been largely sealed by Israel and Egypt since then. Egypt intensified the blockade after its military toppled a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo in 2013.

In recent months, Egyptian soldiers have destroyed virtually all smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. In October, they began razing parts of the Egyptian town of Rafah on the border with Gaza. Residents near the border said homes are still being dynamited or bulldozed at a steady pace, with the latest explosion heard Sunday afternoon.

The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, Gaza's main gateway to the world, mostly has been closed since October. This year, it was only open for two days, leaving thousands unable to get out of the territory, including Muslim pilgrims and students at foreign universities. The tunnel closures have put an end to the smuggling of cheap fuel and cement from Egypt, further hurting a crippled Gaza economy and driving up unemployment. Cigarette prices have tripled.

Some in Gaza blamed Hamas, saying it's time the militant group moderate or hand over control to the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, from whom it seized Gaza.

"Hamas is taking us hostage for the sake of its own interest," university graduate Ahmed Tiri said. Hamas rules Gaza with an iron grip, and such criticism is relatively rare.

Last year, Abbas and Hamas reached a deal under which an Abbas-led government would take over in Gaza. However, the agreement was never implemented, with both sides unwilling to compromise. As a result, reconstruction of Gaza after last year's Israel-Hamas war has stalled.

Walid Abu Hassouna, a barber, said he expects Egypt to tighten the closure of Gaza. "If they could deprive us of the air we breathe, they would do it," he said.

Some said Hamas should negotiate with Egypt to improve the lives of Gaza's 1.8 million people.

Hamas was inflexible for too long and must seek Arab mediators to appeal to Egypt, Gaza analyst Akram Attallah said.

"Hamas did not move. It was like waiting for something from the heavens to resolve the issue," he said. He said the group also made a mistake by acting as a mouthpiece of the Brotherhood.

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