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The Politics Behind the Opening of the Rafah Crossing

Filed under: Jerusalem

The Politics Behind the Opening of the Rafah Crossing

The Rafah border crossing connecting Gaza with Egypt was officially opened on May 28, 2011, by the Egyptian authorities and the Hamas government. The Egyptian news agency MENA reported that the crossing will be open six days a week, excluding Fridays and holidays, as part of Egyptian efforts to bring the internal Palestinian split to an end and to promote national reconciliation.

Gaza residents will now enjoy simplified procedures while crossing the border in both directions at Rafah and at all other border crossings in Egypt. Palestinians are no longer required to apply for a visa to enter Egypt, although a visa valid for at least six months is needed if a Palestinian is travelling through Egypt to a third country. According to the Egyptian announcement, the new procedures will apply to men under the age of 18 or above 40, students at Egyptian universities, patients who come for medical treatment, and children joining their parents.1

The change in Egypt’s policy has been galvanized since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February following the popular revolution, which led the army to take over political authority during the interim period while the constitution is amended and elections to parliament and the presidency are held. Senior members of the new regime recently reiterated Egypt’s intention to officially and permanently open the border crossing in order to support the Palestinian people.


More than 162,000 Crossed the Border in 2010 to “Besieged” Gaza

Since Hamas won the elections in January 2006, the Rafah border crossing has been open “irregularly.” Egypt and Hamas authorities coordinated the crossing of thousands of people in large groups only on a few specific days each year. However, the Rafah crossing was open almost every day for “special cases,” visits by Hamas senior leaders to Egypt, cases needing medical treatment, and the arrival of foreign diplomats, activists, and international aid convoys. Hamas military operatives, as well as other Palestinian terrorists, who were injured in hostilities or “work accidents,” were entitled to quick passage via Rafah for urgent medical treatment in Egyptian hospitals.

On the heels of the Turkish flotilla affair, President Hosni Mubarak ordered on June 1, 2010, that the Rafah crossing be opened until further notice. The numbers of people who passed through the Rafah crossing in both directions during the years 2006-2010 is as follows:2

• January to June 2006 (until Cpl. Gilad Shalit was abducted) – 38, 805 people in both directions.

• July 2006 to June 2007 (until Hamas took over Gaza militarily) – 142,000 people in both directions (75,000 left Gaza for Egypt and 67,000 entered Gaza from Egypt).

• July 2007 to June 2008 (until the beginning of the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas) – 5,537.

• July 2008 to June 2009 – 31,900 people.

• January to December 2009 – 63,480 people.

• January to December 2010 – more than 162,060 (82,942 left Gaza for Egypt and 79,118 entered Gaza).3

• February to May 23 2011 – 34,403 in both directions.4

Hamas Praises the Change in Egyptian Policy and Demands Free Passage of Goods

The Hamas movement and the Hamas government in Gaza thanked Egypt for officially opening the Rafah crossing. “The decision demonstrates the spirit of the Egyptian revolution, expressing Arabism and the depth of the brotherly relations between the Palestinian people and the Egyptian people, which have started to restore their original role with regard to the Palestinian problem,” Hamas said in an official announcement. Taher a-Nunu, spokesperson of the Hamas government, added that the new procedures will also be applied in all Egyptian airports, and expressed the hope that Egypt will allow the passage of goods through the Rafah crossing.5

During a ceremony in Rafah on May 28, 2011, Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas’ spokesperson, said that “the opening of the Rafah crossing does not abolish the legal responsibility of the occupation [Israel] for Gaza, as Gaza is an integral part of Palestine.”6 Ismail Radwan, a senior Hamas member, praised news reports that Egypt intended to amend the Camp David Accords with Israel.7

Mahmud a-Zahar, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Hamas government and member of Hamas’ political bureau, joined in commending the new Egyptian policy. In a press conference at the Muslim Brotherhood offices in Ismailia, Egypt, Zahar said that “via the revolution the Egyptian people showed the world their ability to eliminate injustice and restore the respect of the [Arab] nation, and from there begins the way to liberate Palestine from the Zionist enemy….Palestine will be liberated by the arms of the Arab and Islamic world within a short time.” Zahar further said that the Palestinian problem helps to strengthen the bonds of Muslims worldwide and to reshuffle the cards in the Middle East in parallel with the rise of the Islamic awakening.8

A few weeks before the final approval of the new Egyptian policy, Hatem Aweida, the head of the borders and crossings authority in Gaza, explained the importance of the Rafah crossing for the Palestinians, saying that “the scope of trade with Israel enforced on the Gaza Strip surpasses $1.7 billion annually, while the alternative of trading with Arab and Islamic countries instead of the occupation is the best option.”9

Hamas repeatedly demanded of Egypt to regulate passage at the Rafah crossing with no restrictions on people and goods or any linkage to Israel, just as any other border crossing operates between two sovereign states. All Egyptian diplomatic efforts and heavy pressure failed to convince Hamas to accept, even as lip service, a one-year extention of the crossings agreement of 2005 – signed by Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority – which gave Israel the power to supervise the Rafah crossing using cameras.


Egypt Loves the “Israeli Occupation” of Gaza

In the years since Hamas came to power, Egypt has supported the Palestinians by opening the Rafah crossing for passage of people, but always under “informal” and “irregular” procedures. At the same time, Egypt turned a blind eye to the immense tunnel infrastructure along the border, through which goods worth many hundreds of millions of dollars were and still are being imported (“smuggled”) from Egypt. The security measures taken by the Egyptian government to curb the “smuggling” were limited and did not stop the flow of goods through hundreds of tunnels, whose entrances could clearly be observed from a distance. As a result, the tunnels have become the lifeline of the Gaza economy, enriching the Hamas government, which regulated the ownership of the tunnels and collected a 14.5 percent tax on the total of goods imported. At the same time, the Rafah crossing and the tunnel industry were used by Egypt as leverage in its relations with Hamas government.

Officially, and in contrast to the Hamas position, Egypt stuck to the 2005 crossings agreement, and in particular the supervising Israeli role in it, in order to use the agreement as a pretext to argue that Israel is still the “occupier” of the Gaza Strip, even after Israel pulled out of the area and evacuated all its military forces and civilians six years ago. Egypt exerted pressure on Hamas to follow this policy and play the game in order to prevent Israel from evading its “responsibility” for the prolonged “occupation.”10

That was one of the main reasons motivating Egypt to take upon itself a major role in the reconciliation initiative between Fatah and Hamas, which intended to portray an image of a united Palestinian authority in the West Bank and Gaza. Egypt feared that a well-established Hamas regime would strengthen the independent and sovereign status of Gaza, and thus would help Israel to transfer the responsibility for Gaza to Egypt.


Khaled Mashaal: Israel, the “Occupier,” Must Continue Supplying Gaza with All Its Needs

The shift in Egyptian policy toward Israel in the aftermath of the popular revolution opened new opportunities and made Hamas more comfortable to follow Egypt’s strategy. A few hours after the reconciliation agreement was signed by Fatah and Hamas in Cairo on April 27, 2011, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was interviewed by Egyptian Dream TV, where he explained, among other issues, Hamas’ current policy regarding the Rafah crossing and the “Israeli occupation.” The following are translated excerpts from Mashaal’s interview:

• “Gaza remains under the responsibility of Israel politically and legally. When we are talking of opening the Rafah crossing and creating economic activity and mutual trade, [we mean] that the Egyptian manufacturer will benefit from it, as well as the Egyptian merchant and the customer and the needy in Gaza.”

• “This [the opening of the Rafah crossing] does not mean that we are transferring to Egypt the economic or political responsibility for Gaza. However, we don’t want our economy to be totally bound to the Israeli economy, but to be regulated in the same manner Egypt trades with Sudan, Libya, and other neighboring countries.”

• “The Rafah crossing is the key issue. We want to open it legally and properly, in a way that will safeguard the interests and security of Egypt. We respect Egyptian laws and there is no argument on that….If the crossings are open, there will be no need for the tunnels, certainly…we want to close them, but to insure the natural lifeline with Egypt.”

• “We will persist in demanding that Israel supply all of Gaza’s needs via the six crossings connecting Gaza with the Zionist entity, as Israel is responsible [for Gaza]….We will not let Israel evade its responsibility and transfer the burden [of Gaza] to Egypt or Jordan. Jordan is Jordan and will never be an alternative homeland, Egypt is Egypt and Sinai is Sinai and will never be a land belonging the Palestinian people.”11

Israel Should Consider the Option of Political Separation Also in Parts of the West Bank

In summary, Egypt and Hamas have taken a coordinated political move intended to entangle Israel with a virtual occupation and to force Israel to comply with its “legal responsibilities” by taking care of the well-being of Gazans. The paradox is perplexing. Hamas, proud of “liberating” Gaza in 2005 and loyal to its oath to liberate through jihad the rest of Palestine, is striving to preserve the “Israeli occupation” of Gaza.

The clear Israeli interest is a complete separation from Gaza, which is controlled by a terrorist organization that gives safe haven to other Palestinian terrorist organizations. Israel should not fall into the political trap put in place by Egypt and Hamas, and should consider extending the policy of political separation to parts of the West Bank where the bulk of the Palestinian population is located. This could also apply to the border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan.

The idea here would not be to repeat the 2005 Gaza Disengagement by removing Israeli settlements, or withdrawing fully to the 1967 line. For Israel must retain its vital military positions in the Jordan Valley and in those areas that will be part of its defensible borders in the future. This line of policy may be even more relevant if Palestine will be recognized as a sovereign state by member states of the UN.

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Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. and is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.