Rafah Crossing to Open: Is Egypt Changing the Rules?

By Richard Lightbown

Egypt announced last week that it intends to open the Rafah Crossing to the Gaza Strip on a permanent basis. Commenting on Israel’s Army Radio on 30 April the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces General Sami Anan was reported to have said that this is not a matter of Israel’s concern. Officially perhaps he is incorrect since the 2005 Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing make it plain that the opening of the crossing is very much dependent on the cooperation of the Government of Israel. However since Israel has never seen fit to abide by the Agreement on Movement and Access (hereinafter called ‘the Agreement’) of which these Principles are a part one might conclude that General Anan has a valid point.

The Agreement was intended to facilitate movement within the Palestinian Territories, open Rafah as an international crossing point to enable the passage of people and “promote peaceful economic development and improve the humanitarian situation on the ground”.

It is worthwhile reiterating here the main points agreed by Israel and Palestine following negotiations facilitated by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, EU representative Javier Solana and Quartet Special Envoy John Wolfensohn.

• Crossings into Gaza were to operate continuously. Of the five crossings from Israel the main crossing at Karni would process 150 trucks of exports per day in December 2005, which would rise to 400 by the end of 2006. 
• Israel would permit the export of all agricultural products for the 2005 season and ensure the continued opportunity thereafter of Gazan producers to export.
• Israel also undertook to make the West Bank passages fully operational as soon as possible. Bus convoys were to be established on the link between Gaza and the West Bank by the end of 2005 and truck convoys were to begin in January 2006.
• Construction of the seaport for Gaza could start once Israel gave assurances that it would not interfere with its operation.
• Discussions were to continue on the rehabilitation and operation of Gaza’s airport. 
• Rafah Crossing would be restricted to Palestinian ID card holders and others in agreed categories by prior notification to Israel with approval of senior Palestinian Authority leaders. The crossing would be operated by Egypt and the Palestinian Authority monitored by EU officials.
• Rafah was also to handle exports from Gaza while imports into Gaza from Egypt would pass via the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel.

One year after the agreement OCHA reported that “the ability of Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip to access either the West Bank or the outside world remains extremely limited and the flow of commercial trade is negligible”. For people in Gaza the situation never got any better.

The main crossing from Israel at Karni was opened in December 2005 but during 2006 it was closed for more than 50 per cent of its scheduled operating days by Israeli Authorities citing security reasons. On average only 12 truckloads of goods per day were exported from Gaza (three per cent of the target figure for the end of 2006).

Despite emphasis in the Agreement on permitting the export of agricultural produce for the 2005 harvest season, only 465 tonnes were exported of nearly 14,000 tonnes produced (i.e. slightly more than three per cent) while a further 25 per cent was sold locally or through Israeli wholesalers. The remainder of the crops were given away or destroyed.

Sufa Crossing was used primarily for the import of construction materials. During the first year of the Agreement it was open for only 60 per cent of scheduled days. Erez Crossing was not used for commercial goods and Kerem Shalom Crossing was boycotted by the Palestinian Authority and was open by humanitarian cargos only.

Since the introduction of the Israeli closure regime on Gaza in 2007 all crossings other than the small inconvenient crossing at Kerem Shalom were gradually closed to goods traffic. This remaining crossing has not been open continuously, and was closed between 5 and 13 April this year on the grounds of continuing rocket fire and security threats against Israeli soldiers. The reopening on 13 April allowed the resumption of imports and one truckload of export produce. During the week of closure approximately three-quarters of a million cut flowers designated for export from Gaza were lost through spoilage (incurring estimated losses of US$110,000).

Truck and bus convoys between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were never introduced.
Plans to upgrade the port of Gaza following the Oslo Accords began after finance was provided by Dutch, French and European investments. Starting in 1994 the work was constantly hampered by Israeli obstruction of materials and workers. Finally, one year into the project, Israeli forces bombed the port and completely destroyed it. The revival of the scheme under the 2005 Agreement was stillborn because of Israel’s refusal to provide the required assurances. (The US-led committee to oversee these arrangements as required under the Agreement was never established.)

Nothing came of the intentions to reopen Gaza’s international airport which has been closed following bombing by Israeli forces in December 2001.

In five months following the capture of Gilad Shalit on 25 June 2006 the Rafah Crossing was open for only 14 per cent of the time and since that time has never been open continuously. Although President Mubarak must shoulder much of the blame for this and the Palestinian authorities are not without responsibility the Government of Israel was largely to blame for this situation by its manipulation and use of the terms of the Agreement for the opening. 

Egypt’s declared intention to open the crossing into Gaza reflects a radical change from the policy of Hosni Mubarak and promises to provide a lifeline to the moribund Gazan economy that has been deliberately targeted by Israeli policies which are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. In February IRIN reported that the World Bank believed that using Rafah as a trade corridor to the Suez Canal container terminal or Cairo International Airport could be done at a cost equivalent to or less than using Israel’s port or airports. Continuous opening will allow producers to effectively plan their transport arrangements free of the whim of a malignant border control. It will also allow students with overseas placements to take up their studies, and provide an opportunity for the rebuilding of Gaza including the refurbishment and replenishment of its dire medical system. (For as the surgeon Dr Mustafa Yassin told the Turkel Committee on 13 October 2010 “I haven’t seen anything like Gaza in my life, and I hope that I won’t ever see it again.”)

The question remains whether Egypt will be allowed to carry out this policy or whether it will be prevailed upon to reverse its plans. Israel’s quisling administration in the US has already provided more the US$116 million to Egypt in order to finance border security and combat tunnel trafficking. This included provision for a mobile ground surveillance radar and support system and a border tunnel activity and detection system. Will the US sit idly by as Egypt’s new regime renders this expenditure irrelevant and worthless? Or will it dare to defy the winds of change in the Arab world by racking up the pressure on its erstwhile ally to bring it into line against Gazan resistance?

Meanwhile in nearby corners of the Mediterranean Sea, Mossad and the organizers of the next flotilla are playing out a sophisticated game of hide and seek. If the flotilla avoids the saboteurs and successfully takes to the sea Mr Netanyahu will be forced against his natural inclination to make a major political decision. Does he unleash the dogs of war and try to face down world opprobrium, or does he sit meekly by and allow the fleet to pass on victorious to Gaza? Either way he stands to be hoist on the petard of his own intransigence. Perhaps the Egyptian government will make the decision for him by rendering the blockade obsolete.

At the same time a successful entry into Gaza by sea will demonstrate many things. It will show the possibilities for trade by sea to complement the land crossing. It will refute the liars that deny that Gaza has a port and the doubters at UNHRC and elsewhere that it is a place where one can unload cargoes even now. It will also demonstrate the need for the world to insist that Israel allows the Gaza port to be refurbished. Above all it will demonstrate that people of courage and determination can accomplish what weak, collaborative governments fear to do.

Dare we hope this time that righteousness will prevail?    

– Richard Lightbown is an activist against war and injustice. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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