Rafah border crossing reopens, again

CAIRO (IPS) - Egypt’s border with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip was reopened to Palestinian travelers Wednesday after a series of squabbles over operational procedures had temporarily brought cross-border traffic to a halt.

“The situation at the border has been ambiguous,” Essam al-Arian, a leading member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement (which is ideologically affiliated with Hamas), told IPS. “After having been closed briefly — first by the Egyptians and then by the Palestinians — the border has now been reopened again.”

On 28 May, Egyptian authorities opened the Rafah Border Crossing to human traffic, allowing Palestinian passengers to freely enter and exit the coastal enclave for the first time in four years. The Rafah terminal is the only crossing along Egypt’s 14-kilometer border with Gaza, and the Strip’s only land crossing not controlled by Israel.

Egyptian authorities increased the terminal’s working hours from six hours a day to eight, and from five days a week to six (it remains closed on Fridays). What’s more, Palestinian travelers — except men between the ages of 18 and 40 — were exempted from having to obtain travel visas.

The move followed an announcement in April by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi (who has since been named the next Arab League secretary-general) that the border would be reopened on a permanent basis after having been sealed for four years under the ousted Mubarak regime.

Hamas, which has governed the strip since 2007, lauded the move, with Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum on 26 May calling it “a courageous step that reflects both the Palestinian and Egyptian popular will.”

“Direct challenge to Israel’s interests”

Israeli officials, meanwhile, expressed consternation, saying the decision would allow Hamas to import weapons into the besieged coastal enclave. “The free movement of people and cargo … is simply going to be used in a more intensive manner to bring in ammunition and military equipment,” Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau told reporters 29 May.

“Israel sees the reopening of the Gaza border as a direct challenge to its interests,” Tarek Fahmi, director of the Israeli desk at the Cairo-based National Center for Middle East Studies, told IPS. “The status of the Rafah crossing remains the litmus test of Egypt’s relations with Israel.”

Israel sealed its own border with the Gaza Strip in 2006 after Hamas swept Palestinian legislative elections. Following Hamas’ seizure of the territory one year later, Egypt followed suit by closing the Rafah terminal to both human and commercial traffic.

The siege on Gaza cut the strip off from the rest of the world, depriving its roughly 1.6 million inhabitants of most basic commodities, including food, medicine, fuel and desperately-needed building materials.

Egypt’s decision to reopen the border on a permanent followed soon on the heels of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February. Since then, the country’s affairs have been run by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

For three days — 28, 29 and 30 May — border operations ran smoothly, with hundreds of Palestinian passengers both entering and exiting the Strip daily.

Rafah opened, but with restrictions

Notably, however, commercial goods remained barred from entering Gaza.

“Only medical supplies will be allowed through Rafah,” an unnamed Egyptian border official was quoted as saying in the state press on 26 May. “Commercial goods must enter the strip via the [Israel-controlled] al-Auja Crossing.”

Problems arose on the last day of May, when dozens of Palestinian travelers — whose names were reportedly on an Egyptian travel-ban list — were denied entry into Egypt. Then, on 1 June, Egyptian authorities announced that no more than 400 Palestinians would be allowed into the country on a daily basis.

The next day, Yassir Othman, Egypt’s ambassador to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, attributed the confusion to “administrative and technical problems.” He reiterated Egypt’s intention to open the border and denied the existence of “external pressures” on Egypt to keep the border closed.

On 4 June, the crisis climaxed when Egypt abruptly closed the crossing again without informing Palestinian border authorities. “The Rafah Crossing was closed for three hours due to maintenance and renovation,” North Sinai Governor al-Sayyid Abdelwahab Mabrouk said in statement.

When Egyptian border officials reopened the terminal on 5 June, they found that their Palestinian counterparts had closed it from the other side to protest Egypt’s apparent foot-dragging.

Palestinian terminal head Ayyoub Abu Shaar was quoted as saying that border operations on the Gaza side would remain suspended “until Egypt decisively opens the crossing, increases daily limits for passengers, speeds up operations, and agrees to precise working hours.”

Hasan Abu Hashish, media director for the Gaza government, told reporters: “We’re calling on Egyptian authorities to carry out their earlier promise to facilitate cross-border traffic, cancel daily passenger limits and revise the travel-ban list.”

“External pressures”

Border operations finally resumed on Wednesday, 8 June — although still confined to human traffic — after Egypt reportedly promised to raise the daily passenger limit to at least 500.

Gamal Zahran, political science professor at Suez Canal University and former MP, says that daily passenger limits ought to be scrapped altogether if Egypt is to fulfill its vow to permanently reopen the border.

“The travel-ban list, meanwhile, which was drawn up under the former regime, should be modified with input from Hamas,” Zahran told IPS. “What’s more, the crossing must be opened up to commercial traffic, while urgent humanitarian cases should be allowed through at all times.”

The Muslim Brotherhood’s al-Arian, for his part, attributed the recent confusion to more than just red tape.

“Egypt is subject to behind-the-scenes pressure by the US and Israel to maintain the Mubarak-era status quo at the border,” he said. “These forces are keen to pre-empt Egypt’s post-revolutionary foreign-policy realignments — especially those pertaining to Hamas and the Gaza file.”

Al-Arian went on to say that Egypt and Hamas were now “cooperating closely” to resolve all outstanding border issues. “And by working together, I’m confident they will succeed in resisting any external pressures.”

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