Rafah Crossing: Egypt’s Negotiation Tool to Bring the Palestinian Cause to an End

For years, Egypt has used the Rafah Border Crossing, the only entry to the Gaza Strip under Palestinian and Egyptian control, to exert pressure on Hamas. However, the crossing’s closure punishes the whole Gaza Strip by restricting movement for its residents and imposing total isolation from the rest of the world.
Rafah Crossing Egypt’s Negotiation Tool to Bring the Palestinian Cause to an End.

Egypt has been leading truce negotiations between Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip and Israel for months. These negotiations are an attempt to bring the Palestinian cause to an end, in accordance with the so-called Middle East “deal of the century,” promoted by Jared Kushner, senior adviser to President Trump. The deal is meant to quell the anger of Palestinians, who have been protesting the 12-year-old Israeli blockade on Gaza since March 2018.

The 1.8 million Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip do not have access to the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories, nor to the outside world, because of Israeli restrictions on the strip since the early 1990s.

Then, following the takeover of Gaza in June 2007 by Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian faction rival of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel imposed a land, sea, and air blockade on the Gaza Strip under the pretext of security concerns. At the same time and for the same reasons, Egypt closed the Rafah Crossing, the only remaining entryway for Palestinian trade and travel.

The Israeli blockade and Egypt’s shutdown of the Rafah Crossing has exacerbated the isolation of the strip and the suffering of its inhabitants, not only debilitating the living conditions in the Gaza Strip, but also eroding its social and economic fabric.

Besides the suffocating consequences of the Israeli economic blockade on the Gaza Strip, Israeli bombing has destroyed critical infrastructure and residential buildings.

Besides the suffocating consequences of the Israeli economic blockade on the Gaza Strip, Israeli bombing has destroyed critical infrastructure and residential buildings. Wells, water towers, pipelines, and sewage plants have been destroyed, leading to excessive depletion of water aquifers, reported the Daily Beast in October, asserting that Israel is primarily responsible for the deterioration of living conditions in Gaza.  

Five sewage treatment plants were closed also due to shortages of electricity that caused the Palestinians to prioritize operation of facilities in Gaza. Palestinian families had to fill tubs, sinks, and tanks because they had running water only once a week. Doctors were also forecasting a huge rise in water-borne ailments and an outbreak of epidemic diseases due to deteriorating water quality in Gaza.

In October 2018, Qatar pumped $25 million in aid to the Gaza Strip, with Israel’s approval, for, among other things, the purchase of diesel fuel to run the sewage plants. The Qatari funds prevented the spread of epidemic diseases in Gaza, which could have moved quickly to Israel,  according to an Israeli newspaper.

The Big Picture

The Gaza Strip has seven crossings; six of them are under Israeli control, while Egypt and the PA jointly control the Rafah Border Crossing.

The Gaza Strip has seven crossings; six of them are under Israeli control, while Egypt and the PA jointly control the Rafah Border Crossing. The crossing has been closed since Hamas took control of the strip in June 2007, except for special humanitarian cases every two or three months. The crossing was finally opened in May 2018, and remained open until this January, making it the longest continuous opening since 2014.

On January 6, however, Egypt closed the Rafah Crossing after the PA withdrew its employees from the border to protest its rival, Hamas, for summoning, arresting, and abusing PA employees. According to Fatah party officials (Fatah is the dominant member of the PA), Egypt promised Hamas to reopen the crossing soon while an Egyptian delegation continues negotiations between the Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah to hand over the crossing to the Fatah-led PA.  This is only a highlight of a history of complex antagonism between Egypt, Hamas, and the PA.

For years, Egypt has choked the Gaza Strip by restricting trade and destroying illicit tunnels that run under the border. Egypt has been using these measures to exert pressure on Hamas and strengthen its relations with Israel.

Ideological affiliation has always determined the nature of Egyptian relations with Hamas and the Gaza Strip, especially. Egypt-Gaza relations improved after the election of President Mohamed Morsi in 2011, because of his allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928 and was also associated with Hamas.  But, after the 2013 anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted Morsi, the relationship between ُEgypt and Hamas deteriorated.

Egyptian relations with Hamas and the Gaza Strip entered yet another phase, after the meeting between Egypt’s President al-Sisi and U.S. President Donald Trump in April 2017. Many Arab media outlets dubbed it the “termination of the Palestinian cause,” while the Trump administration lauded it as the “deal of the century.”

The American-led deal was designed to set up “a free-trade zone between the Gaza Strip and El-Arish in [the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula], where five large industrial projects will be established.” The deal also plans to transform the Gaza Strip into the center of a future Palestinian state that would include parts of the West Bank and the Egyptian Sinai.

At the same time, it would exclude Jerusalem and many other parts of the West Bank in favor of ongoing Israeli settlement constructions. The pact would also annex all of Jerusalem to Israel and deny the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian parties rejected the deal and Palestinian Presidential Spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh described the tour of U.S. officials in the region as a “waste of time.”

A crucial obstacle to the implementation of this latest plan, let alone any deal regarding Palestine, is the discord between the forces that govern Gaza and the West Bank, respectively. The PA, based in the West Bank and headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, has not recognized any action taken by Hamas after it won the general elections and took power in Gaza in 2007. Similarly, it has refused to pay salaries to the 40,000 public employees appointed by the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. Negotiations between the two parties have made little progress since.

Hamas’s handing over of the Rafah Crossing to the PA in November 2017 was supposed to represent a first step in the reconciliation of the two Palestinian parties and an end to the misery of Gazan residents under their endless siege.

Egypt’s collective punishment of the Gazan population continued unabated under the pretext of military security, with the cutbacks of the Rafah Crossing opening days.

Unfortunately, Egypt’s collective punishment of the Gazan population continued unabated under the pretext of military security, with the cutbacks of the Rafah Crossing opening days. Egypt blamed Hamas for smuggling and providing weapons to terrorists operating in the Sinai.

The Rafah Crossing continues to be one of the most important means of pressure used by Egypt to manipulate Hamas in particular and Palestinians in general. Recent tensions surrounding the crossing make it clear that the governance of this port of entry significantly impinges on the stability of Gaza and presents a major obstacle to Palestinian unity and any future deal with Israel.

No agreement can be achieved in the short term with international pressure on Palestinians merely to accept the “deal of the century” without any practical solutions that guarantee the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Furthermore, the collective punishment of the people of Gaza through the current Egyptian policy of closing the Rafah Crossing keeps Gaza a time-bomb that could explode again at any time.