Egypt remains complicit in Gaza siege

Egyptians in Cairo protest against their government’s role in the ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip. (Hossam el-Hamalawy)

CAIRO (IPS) - Almost two months since Egypt announced it would reopen its Rafah border terminal with the Gaza Strip, operation of the crossing remains sorely limited.

“Rafah has only been opened to passengers and some medical supplies,” Hatem el-Buluk, journalist and resident of al-Arish, located some 40 kilometers west of Rafah, told IPS. “Everything else, including food and construction materials, must enter the strip via Israeli-controlled border crossings.”

On 1 June, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that Rafah — the strip’s only border crossing not shared with Israel — would be opened to humanitarian aid “indefinitely.” The surprise announcement came one day after Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists aboard a ship bringing humanitarian aid to the besieged coastal enclave.

Hitherto, Egypt had refused to open the crossing until Palestinian resistance group Hamas, which has governed the strip since elections in 2006, signed on to a “reconciliation” agreement with the US-backed Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas’s term as PA President expired in January 2009 and has remained in power under controversial emergency laws.

Since the 1 June announcement, some 37,000 Gazans have exited or entered the strip, according to an official border source quoted in the state press. The vast majority of passengers have been students, medical patients and expatriate workers.

Material traffic through the crossing, however, continues to be strictly limited by authorities, informed sources say.

In mid-July, a Libyan ship bearing 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid arrived in al-Arish after being prevented by the Israeli navy from reaching the Gaza Strip. The aid supplies were subsequently transported from al-Arish to the Egypt-Gaza border, where some 700 tons of medical supplies were allowed to pass into the strip via Rafah.

The rest of the aid, however, consisting mostly of foodstuffs, had to be sent into the strip via the Egypt-Israel border crossing of Kerem Abu Salem.

The Libyan attempt was not the first aid convoy dispatched since 1 June to run up against such restrictions.

Throughout June, several attempts to deliver humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, organized by Egyptian opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, met with similar results: while medical supplies were allowed through Rafah, everything else was forced to enter the strip via the Egypt-Israel crossings of Kerem Abu Salem (10 kilometers south of Rafah) or al-Auja (50 kilometers south of Rafah).

“We tried very hard to get the entire consignment through Rafah, but authorities were adamant in their refusal,” Hamdi Hassan, a Muslim Brotherhood MP who accompanied one such aid convoy to the border, told IPS. “While people and medical supplies were allowed through Rafah, everything else was forced to pass through the Israel-controlled al-Auja crossing.”

Ever since Egypt closed Rafah in 2007 following Hamas’s seizure of the strip, it has insisted the crossing can only be reopened under the terms of a trilateral 2005 border agreement between Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the European Union. The agreement, to which Egypt is not a signatory, stipulates PA control over the Gaza side of Rafah and the presence of EU observers at the crossing to monitor all border traffic.

“Until now, Egyptian officialdom has cited the 2005 border agreement as the main reason why it could not unilaterally open Rafah,” said al-Buluk. “But the fact that Egypt has now opened the crossing, partially at least, proves that it could — given the political will — open the border unconditionally any time it wanted to.

“The Rafah crossing is a massive terminal that could easily accommodate the passage of all forms of goods, in addition to passengers,” al-Buluk added.

Writing in an editorial, Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of prominent opposition daily Al-Dustour, accused the government of implementing Israeli policy on the border by keeping Rafah closed to badly-needed foodstuffs and building materials. Gaza has been in particular need of the latter ever since Israel’s three-week-long assault on the strip in late 2008 and early 2009 destroyed much of Gaza’s infrastructure.

“When Israel decides to ban certain goods like cement and steel from entering the strip, Egypt implements the decision,” Eissa wrote. “And when Israel — owing to mounting international pressure — decides to allow some of these banned goods to enter the strip, Egypt again implements the decision.”

“The US and Israel have managed to restrict Egypt’s role in the region to the operation of the Rafah crossing in their interests,” he added.

Eissa went on to point out the contradiction inherent in Egypt’s border policy, noting that “Cairo publicly calls on Israel to raise the siege on the Gaza Strip, while simultaneously keeping the Rafah crossing closed” to the most desperately-needed goods and equipment.

According to the Brotherhood’s Hassan, Egypt could open Rafah unconditionally “whenever it wanted to.”

“The government should follow Arab public opinion on this issue and open the crossing to passengers and all forms of goods,” he said, “instead of simply following Israeli diktats as to what can and cannot cross the border.”

Israel sealed its six border crossings with the Gaza Strip following Hamas’s landslide victory in 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, with Egypt closing Rafah the following year. The de facto siege has served to hermetically seal off the strip from the rest of the world, depriving its roughly 1.5 million inhabitants of the most basic necessities.

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