By Motasem A Dalloul
Egypt has recently increased the days of opening the Rafah Crossing with the Gaza Strip, is it facilitating the siege or there is it carrying out certain agendas?
The Egyptian authorities have recently opened the Rafah Crossing several times within a very short period. Rafah is the main gateway to the world for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, so is Egypt attempting to ease the ten-year-old Israeli-led and internationally backed siege?
After a few years of opening the crossing for just a day or so every three or four months, over the past month Egypt has opened it on about 20 days. Moreover, it has invited Gaza residents, including academics, traders, tribal leaders and journalists to meet their Egyptian counterparts and discuss issues related to easing the blockade.
This week, several Palestinian and Egyptian sources confirmed that the Rafah Crossing has been open for commercial commodities, mainly vehicles, certain kinds of foods and construction materials; the message intended to get through is that the government in Cairo is indeed easing the siege.
Hamas, which has been controlling the Gaza Strip since 2007 when the blockade actually started, said that the Egyptian measures to ease the siege were brought to its knowledge. The movement applauded them, hoping that they are gradual measures moving towards ending the “evil” restrictions on Gaza’s redevelopment.
“We are fully aware of what is going on regarding the Rafah Crossing,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, “but we hope that the Egyptians will reach the point that matches their historical record regarding the Palestinian cause.”
More is coming
Palestinian MP Ashraf Jomaa of Fatah confirmed the easing of the blockade by the Egyptians. He said that there are many more such measures in this respect coming soon. However, he suggested that this does not mean that Cairo has changed its vision about dealing with the Gaza Strip.
“Egypt has actually eased the siege on Gaza,” he explained, “but this does not mean that it has stopped dealing with Gaza based on the regional and international view.” Its political stance has not altered, he said.
Jomaa claimed that Egypt has taken this measure due to “mutual interests” linked to the volatile security situation in Sinai. “Egypt found that easing the Gaza siege would help to stabilise the security chaos in Sinai.”
According to the deputy chief editor of Egypt’s state-run Al-Ahram newspaper, the Egyptian easing of the Gaza siege could be understood in this context. However, Ashraf Abu Al-Houl gave several other reasons, including the interests of the Egyptian authorities in facilitating the life of the Palestinians in the coastal territory.
Abu Al-Houl said that Cairo had noted an “improvement” in the security situation in Sinai after it had opened the Rafah Crossing. “Ten years [of siege] have not changed the situation in Sinai,” he said, “so when it was proposed that the Gaza siege might be related to the issue, it was felt that it was a pretext for terrorists to destabilise the northern Sinai Peninsula.”
Not everyone believes that the easing is a major improvement for the Palestinians. Wisam Afifa is one of them; the Chief Editor of the Palestinian newspaper Al-Resalah refuses to call what is going on with the Rafah Crossing an “easing” of the Gaza siege because residents are still “under pressure” and suffering from a lack of even basic necessities.
No real easing
“As of now, there is no real easing, although there are some signs of an improvement in the operation of the crossing,” he told me. He believes that Cairo has been trying to “re-evaluate” its relations with Gaza — “which means Hamas” — because “it recognised that it did not get any benefit from isolating the movement over the past few years.”
He also believes, though, that this measure is linked to “mutual interests” concerning Egypt’s national security; Egypt came to the conclusion that the insecurity in Sinai is related to the situation in the Gaza Strip. Afif did not admit that this is the reality on the ground, but “this is what Egypt found.”
Egypt, he added, would not have opened the crossing with Israel’s agreement. “This would never have happened without Israel giving Cairo the green light, perhaps in order to give a chance for the de facto truce between Gaza and Israel to last as long as possible and thus delay the expected explosion of Gazan resentment.”
Furthermore, he suggested that Egypt might have told Israel that it has benefited from Gaza as a consumer market and now it is Cairo’s turn to get some benefit. Egypt, remember, is desperate for trade and foreign currency.
Hamas has apparently ruled out any link between easing the siege and improving the position of former Fatah official Mohamed Dahlan in Gaza, or even improving Egyptian relations with the Islamic Resistance Movement itself. “It is an effort in the context of the reorganisation of Cairo’s political and commercial relations with the Palestinians in general,” explained Barhoum. “It is also about controlling the borders and sponsoring the Palestinian cause.”
Ashraf Jomaa is an ally of Dahlan. He ruled out the notion that the opening of the Rafah Crossing has been done following any kind of coordination with the exiled ex-Fatah security chief.
As far as Ashraf Abu Al-Houl is concerned, Cairo decided to ease the siege of Gaza for the sake of its Palestinian residents, not the politicians. “We waited for ten years to see the Palestinian rivals [Fatah and Hamas] came together, but, sadly, this did not happen,” he said. “Hence, Cairo decided to ease the siege so that the Gaza residents do not suffer for ever.” Although he hinted that there are also other reasons, he did not reveal what they might be.
For Fatah MP Yahya Shamiyeh, the opening of Rafah has nothing to do with Dahlan or Hamas or even any other political reason. “It is just an Egyptian thing,” he insisted. “Egypt expected that such a measure could affect its national security positively, so it decided to do it.”
Whether or not this is a real easing of the siege of Gaza, or what the reason behind it might be, it is making life a little bit easier for at least some Palestinians. It’s a start, but let’s see what happens next before we make too much of it.