CAIRO, 24 September (IPS) - The border crisis that had appeared to subside last month is back, with an estimated 2,000 Palestinians marooned on Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip.
A new security arrangement between Cairo, Tel Aviv and the Palestinian Authority (PA) has effectively sealed the last sovereign transit point in or out of the troubled territory, which has been governed by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas since mid-June.
“Israel has succeeded in replacing the Egypt-Gaza Rafah border crossing with a crossing under Israeli control,” Hatem al-Buluk, a journalist and human rights activist, told IPS. “This is in order to choke Hamas and tighten the ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip.”
The Rafah border crossing, which has historically served as the sole transit point between Egypt and Gaza, was sealed 9 June, five days before Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from its US-backed rival Fatah. The closure effectively sealed the last remaining means of entering or exiting the territory, which shares a 15-kilometer border with Egypt.
According to Egyptian officialdom, the move was precipitated by the departure of European observers from the crossing due to inter-Palestinian violence. The observers had been mandated to monitor border traffic in and out of the territory under the terms of a trilateral security arrangement hammered out between Israel, Egypt and the PA in 2005.
The sudden closure left thousands of Palestinian travelers stuck on the Egyptian side with no means of re-entering Gaza. Barred by the Egyptian government from returning to Cairo, most of the stranded travelers were shuffled into the city of al-Arish, some 40 kilometers west of the Rafah crossing in Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula, where they waited in often inhospitable conditions for the border to reopen.
In early July, Israel called for the use of the Egypt-Israel border crossing at Kerem Abu Sallim, which lies roughly ten kilometers south of Rafah, as an alternative route into the Gaza Strip. Unlike Rafah, however, there is virtually no Palestinian authority over the Kerem Abu Sallim crossing.
The Hamas government in Gaza staunchly rejected the proposal, arguing that the move would set a precedent for the eventual replacement of Rafah as the only route in or out of the territory. Hamas also expressed fears that Palestinians forced to re-enter via Kerem Abu Sallim, particularly resistance activists, could be subject to arrest or assassination by Israel.
“Any attempt to transfer passengers from Rafah to the Kerem Abu Sallim crossing will be seen as a dangerous violation … of Palestinian sovereignty over the Gaza Strip,” Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas-affiliated head of the former Palestinian unity government declared in a statement.
On 11 July, the armed wings of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad faction shelled positions close to Kerem Abu Sallim, effectively forestalling its use as an alternative crossing.
In the last days of July, after frustrated Palestinians in al-Arish held angry demonstrations which included limited clashes with Egyptian authorities, a new border scheme was reached between Egypt, Israel and the PA. The arrangement — which excluded Hamas — called for repatriation of Palestinians by way of the Egypt-Israel border crossing at al-Auja, roughly 50 kilometers south of Rafah.
In early August, despite the repeated objections of Hamas, more than 6,000 Palestinians were repatriated via the new route. Under the terms of the arrangement, returnees were sent on a roundabout course, first being bussed south to al-Auja from where they were transported north again through Israel to the Erez terminal linking the Jewish state to the northern Gaza Strip.
The repatriations, which were done in ten groups of varying sizes in the first ten days of August, brought a speedy end to the humanitarian crisis on the border, where makeshift tents had been erected to house stranded Palestinians. However, the new route via al-Auja essentially eliminated the Gaza Strip’s — and therefore Hamas’ — last autonomous access to the outside world.
The traffic has not only been one-way. In the first week of this month, roughly 500 Palestinians also crossed from Gaza to Egypt via al-Auja, the 8 September edition of state daily al-Ahram reported. According to official Palestinian sources cited in the paper, several hundred more Gaza residents — most of them working or studying abroad — are also scheduled to make the crossing in coordination with the Israeli authorities.
The state press has largely downplayed the political implications of the new border scheme. But many local observers say the development represents a successful attempt by Tel Aviv and Washington — both of which call Hamas a “terrorist organization” — to maintain the long-standing blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Since Hamas’ surprise parliamentary victory early last year, the territory has been subject to a crippling embargo — sponsored by Israel, the US and the EU — that has largely destroyed its local economy.
“This was the Israeli objective from the beginning,” Magdi Hussein, political analyst and chairman of the frozen socialist Labor Party, told IPS. “First they tried to impose Kerem Abu Sallim as an alternate crossing, but they were later forced to resort to al-Auja, which is farther south and out of range of resistance shelling.
“Under the new arrangement, resistance leaders and activists can be subject to arrest by the Israelis any time they enter or exit the Gaza Strip,” added Hussein.
Local commentators also point to Cairo’s participation in the new arrangement as proof of Egyptian collusion against Hamas, which is ideologically close to Egypt’s own Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement. Despite repeated calls by Hamas officials and stranded Palestinians to reopen the Rafah crossing, Cairo has continued to cite the absence of EU observers as an excuse for maintaining the closure.
“Egypt and the PA, along with Israel, have insisted on sealing Rafah and using Israeli-controlled al-Auja as a substitute crossing,” Ibrahim Eissa, political analyst and editor-in-chief of independent daily al-Dustour, told IPS. “This is an obvious indication of Arab servility and readiness to make concessions to Israel.”
Hussein agreed, saying that Egyptian participation in the scheme also served to belie recent calls by Cairo for “dialogue” with Hamas as a means to achieve Palestinian national reconciliation.
“Cairo is fully on board the US-Israeli project in the region and is following the US-Israeli policy of refusing to acknowledge Hamas’ authority in Gaza,” he said. “The new border arrangement essentially means that Egypt, the largest Arab country, will act as doorman for the Israeli occupation.”
The de facto use of al-Auja as the sole means in or out of the Gaza Strip has not, however, brought an end to Egypt’s border crisis. Within the last month, the number of new Palestinian arrivals to Egypt has swelled again, with many returning from the Gulf or elsewhere in hopes of re-entering the territory via al-Auja.
But according to al-Buluk, an al-Arish resident, the situation isn’t as dire as it was two months ago, when families could be seen sleeping on the streets of al-Arish. Nevertheless, he said, aside from food rations distributed by the Egyptian Doctors’ Syndicate, “Palestinian travelers with the misfortune to be stranded here aren’t receiving much help.”