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Egypt Opens Its Border with Gaza

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Last week, the interim Egyptian government decided to permanently open the Rafah crossing at the border between Egypt and Gaza. According to news reports, “Rafah will operate for 12 hours, six days a week as a passenger terminal only. Men aged 18 to 40 will require permits to use the crossing and trade — the passage of goods and materials in commercial quantities — continues to be prohibited.” Moreover, women and children can travel without any permits. For many in the press, the opening of the border signals one of the first foreign policy victories of the Arab Spring. Others look at how the opening affects Israel’s responsibility over the Palestinians in Gaza now that the blockade is effectively breached by the Egyptian decision.

The Khaleej Times editorial is hopeful in the aftermath of the opening: “Besieged Gazans now have a gateway to the world. The reopening of Rafah border crossing with Gaza by Egypt is a courageous development, highlighting the change that is dawning across the region. Inevitability, it’s an outcome of Tahrir Square momentum, which is being translated in letter and spirit by the incumbent dispensation in Cairo. The Palestinians have every reason to rejoice as this opening up of the world largest concentration camp for the last many years, which is inhabited by 1.5 million Gazans, had come close on the heels of a rapprochement between the feuding Hamas and Fatah....Egypt’s gesture, however, should not be seen in isolation. US President Barack Obama’s stance that permanent peace can only be possible if Tel Aviv goes back to the 1967 borders is more than enough to ignite potential measures on the part of law-abiding nations.”

Arab News shares that enthusiasm: “The first real sign of change in the Middle East brought about by the Arab Spring community is being witnessed in Gaza. Egypt has finally thrown open the gates of the biggest prison on the planet by opening the Rafah border crossing.” However, it bemoans the UN secretary general’s remarks regarding attempts to end the Gaza blockade: “Considering the Rafah checkpoint is the only access point and link with the rest of the world for the Palestinians, the significance of the move by the Egyptian authorities can hardly be overemphasized....Amazingly, instead of welcoming Egypt’s Rafah move and asking Israel to lift the Gaza blockade, UN chief Ban Ki-moon has urged governments around the world to “discourage” pro-Palestinian activists and groups from sending a new aid flotilla to Gaza....What will it take the world community to act to end this hypocrisy of international institutions? How much more do the Palestinians have to suffer before the world says enough is enough?”

Writing for the UAE daily The National, Alan Philps also makes the argument that the decision to open the crossing signals “a gap between Egypt and Israel…. It is no surprise that the interim military-led government has chosen to reopen the Rafah border. The decision stems from the Egyptian-brokered deal to end the split between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which rules the West Bank. It is understood that Hamas insisted on it, and Fatah, no less keen in the past than the Israelis to undermine Hamas, agreed. But it also sends a clear signal to revolutionary-minded Egyptians that foreign policy is changing and Cairo will now act without consulting Israel. Israel can no longer rely on Arab neighbours to lend it support while it continues to expand settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.”

Without taking away from the importance of this development, Ramzy Baroud cautions in the Palestinian daily Maan News that much remains to be done to normalize the border situation: “[T]he Egypt of today belongs to an entirely different political category to the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak's leadership. Palestinians, especially those trapped behind the shut borders in Gaza, are well aware of this. Still they are cautious....For now, things remain difficult at the border….The sense of joy, however, hasn't made it to the Gaza border yet. The hope and anticipation that Gazans feel towards the changes underway in Egypt can only be understood after a degree of investigation. The distance between Cairo and Rafah is long and arduous. It will be no easy task to translate political will in the former into meaningful policy in the latter.”

The question for some commentators now is, what does the decision of the Egyptian government mean for Israel’s responsibility as an occupying power to ensure the health and safety of Palestinians in Gaza? For Israeli commentators the answer is clear. By opening the border with Gaza, the Egyptian government now assumes that responsibility. Shlomo Avineri asserts on Israeli daily Haaretz, “Without a doubt, Egypt's decision to open the Rafah crossing point is good for the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip and for the Hamas government. The question of whether it is good for Egypt remains open. As for Israel, even though at first glance it might not look that way, it is also good. The fact that Gaza will now be directly connected to the Arab world might make it easier for Israel to untangle itself from a number of knots.”

Likewise, Alex Fishman shares the view on YNet that the Rafah opening can be a positive development from the Israeli point of view: “Paradoxically, security officials in Israel are satisfied with the opening of the Rafah Crossing. Nobody will say it out loud, yet in internal discussions at the highest levels we see a sense of relief in face of the unilateral Egyptian move. Officials are saying that we may finally be moving towards full disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Israel’s wet dream is taking shape: Egypt is assuming responsibility for Gaza residents....Israel needs to start thinking out of the box and relate to the Gaza Strip in a different manner. Ships wish to reach Gaza through the large flotilla planned for the end of June? Go ahead....The Egyptians, being weak at this time, shot themselves in the foot. Mubarak’s regime did not want to fall into this trap and assume responsible for Gaza residents.”

For Mouin Rabbani, the Egyptian decision can hardly be construed as such, despite its historic nature: “The Egyptian decision to permanently reopen the Rafah border crossing does not end the blockade of the Gaza Strip, but is nevertheless a highly significant development….Cairo's new attitude towards the Palestinians is now largely shared by the Fatah movement, which views Palestinian integration — including the free flow of persons and goods between the West Bank and Gaza Strip through Israel — as an essential component of meaningful statehood. Hamas, by contrast, has a more ambivalent attitude. Convinced Israel has no intention of relinquishing its occupation of the West Bank and recognizing that the Gaza Strip is ultimately dependent on either Israel or Egypt for access to the outside world, it calculates that Egypt is the more reliable outlet that, furthermore, offers opportunities for strategic depth.”

 


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