News Analysis: Rafah opening delights Gazans, worries Israel

08:49, May 30, 2011      

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Palestinian border police check identity documents of travellers crossing into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip on May 28, 2011 as Egypt reopened the border, allowing people to cross freely for the first time in four years. (Xinhua/AFP Photo)

by Adam Gonn

The Egyptian government ruled last week that the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip would be opened on a permanent basis, and that only men aged 18 to 40 were required to apply for a visa for passage.

When the new rules came into effect on Saturday morning, some 450 people reportedly crossed the border.

The crossing, which is the only land passage out of Gaza not controlled by Israel, will now be open six days a week, and seven hours a day.

In 2005, When Israel withdrew its troops and evacuated settlements from Gaza under former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, the European Union took over responsibility for overseeing the crossing, under an agreement between Israel and the Mideast Quartet (the United States, the United Nations, Russia, and the EU).

However, following the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by Hamas militants in a cross-border raid in 2006, Egypt imposed restrictions on entry via Rafah.

After Hamas' forceful takeover of the coastal enclave the following year, the border has remained mostly closed, except for humanitarian cases, since the Mubarak government shared Israel's position that Hamas should be contained.

But following the ousting of the former president in February and the establishment of an interim Egyptian government, the tone in Cairo towards Hamas has become more conciliatory and the border crossing rules have been relaxed.

Local analysts believe that the opening was a great victory for regular Palestinians in Gaza and for Hamas. Israeli officials, however, were greatly disturbed by the development, viewing it as a precursor to further hostile steps by its sworn foe, who has called for Israel's destruction since its founding.

PALESTINIAN RELIEF

While Rafah has been closed, this doesn't mean that there was no way to get from Gaza to Egypt, as numerous tunnel have been dug under the border. The tunnels, some built when Israel was in control of Gaza, are used to smuggle food and consumer goods to Gaza.

However, they are also the main entry point for weapons intended for Hamas and other Gaza militants.

Dr. Helga Baumgarten of Birzeit University on the West Bank told Xinhua that the opening is significant, and "people in Gaza are celebrating their freedom of movement."

She added that the possibility to travel back and forth is a basic need not only for ordinary people, but also for those in power. Under the former government, Egypt has frequently stopped Hamas officials from using the crossing.

"The tunnels were a tiny thing, which was necessary for people to simply survive, to have petrol, to have basic foodstuffs, and to be able to build," Baumgarten said.

Baumgarten hoped that the open crossing would help the local economy to develop.

Up until now, any export from Gaza had to go through border crossings with Israel.

A DIFFERENT CAIRO

"What you hear from Cairo - and this is basically Egyptian society pressuring the new government - is that the conditions in Gaza are insupportable," Baumgarten argued.

"They have been pushing the new interim government, hoping that relations will improve with the government in Gaza," she added.

The new Egyptian government was instrumental in working out the reconciliation deal recently signed between Hamas and Fatah, which aims to establish a unity government following years of separation between the two factions after the former's violent take-over of Gaza.

Dr. Ely Karmon with the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya said that while the opening may have some positive aspects, the negative consequences dominate.

"We must take into consideration that this is a sign of a serious change of position by the new Egyptian government," Karmon said. "Because there is an internationally recognized agreement between the Quartet and Israel that this border must be under EU control."

"Although the Egyptian government have promised to accept all the existing international agreements, this is the first time that they are practically canceling it," he said.

While the border opening may only be a smaller issue, Karmon expressed concerns that if the new government would disregard its obligation in this one case, it may choose to do the same when it comes to the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement.

NEW STATUS FOR HAMAS

Karmon said that the opening was a clear victory for Hamas, since its member will be able go abroad for training or for the groups to bring in specialists in areas such as guerrilla warfare.

The possibility also exists that strategic weapons such as anti- tank and anti-ship missiles will be smuggled in, Karmon argued.

Even more important for Egyptian-Hamas relations is the possible influence that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood may gain in the parliamentary and presidential elections that are slated in September.

After being banned from running by Mubarak, the organization, of which Hamas is an offshoot, could very well gain significant influence and give Hamas a powerful ally in Egyptian politics, according to Karmon.

"A positive side from the Israeli viewpoint is that the country can't be accused of closing Gaza now," Karmon said.

"For many years Israel has sought to make Gaza part of the Egyptian arena, so that the Egyptians would be responsible for the well-being of Gaza," Karmon concluded.

Source: Xinhua
 
 
     
 
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