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Egypt's unfulfilled promise to open the Rafah Crossing

By Omar Radwan

Following Israel's attack on the Freedom Flotilla at the end of last month, the siege of Gaza has come under the spotlight. In Europe and the United States there is a growing realisation in official circles that the siege is unacceptable and untenable. With this realisation, attention has, quite naturally, fallen on Egypt's role in the siege. Following the attack on the flotilla, Egypt announced that it had opened the Rafah Crossing, the only point of entry to Gaza not under Israel's direct control, indefinitely. Prior to that the Rafah Crossing had been kept completely closed to the movement of goods, and was only opened intermittently to the movement of people. This made Egypt a collaborator with Israel in its siege of the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian government had refused to allow aid into Gaza. In December last year it began building a steel wall designed to cut off Gaza's only lifeline to the outside world – the smuggling tunnels built underneath the border between Gaza and Egypt. 156 Palestinians have died in these tunnels, which are prone to collapse, over the past two years. Some of these deaths were due to deliberate action by the Egyptian security forces.

The Egyptian government is now beginning to feel the consequences of this policy. It is deeply unpopular both at home and in the wider Arab and Muslim world. Collaboration with the Israelis has highlighted Egypt's current position as a subservient client state of the United States; unable to defy it or Israel in any way and completely dependent on American aid. Egypt's role and standing in the region have diminished. Today, as the siege of Gaza is becoming increasingly unacceptable in world opinion, the Egyptian government will not be able to continue with its role as an enforcer of the Gaza blockade without serious consequences. At the same time, the standing of other powers in the Middle East has increased. Turkey has gained widespread respect and admiration in the Arab and Muslim world for its role in organising the Freedom Flotilla and the tough line it took with Israel. The recent Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum meeting in Istanbul underscored Turkey's growing influence in the Arab world.

The Egyptian government announced that it had opened the Rafah Crossing in order to avoid the negative repercussions of being associated with the siege of Gaza. The announcement is more about public relations than anything else. This is not the first time that the Egyptian government has employed this tactic. Egypt made a similar announcement when Israel launched its war on Gaza in December 2008. A limited amount of aid was allowed in and some wounded Palestinians were allowed to travel to Egypt for medical treatment, but aside from this the crossing remained closed. The people of Gaza were trapped during the war, unable to flee the Israeli bombardment and the siege stayed in force. The recent announcement is similarly deceptive. The deputy chairman of the Borders and Crossings Administration Authority in Gaza, Khalid Abul-Naja says that the Egyptian announcement is devoid of any meaning, because Egypt is only allowing the same categories of people to cross the border as it did before (students, those in need of medical treatment, holders of foreign passports, and those who already have visas allowing them to enter Egypt) and the Egyptian authorities are dealing with the Palestinians in the same way they did before, forcing them to wait hours before allowing them to cross the border and arbitrarily turning back roughly 25 % of those who wish to enter. The only thing that has changed, according to Abul-Naja, is that the crossing is operational for more days a week – but for fewer hours each day – than it was before. As for aid, very little is going through Rafah. An aid convoy was organised by Egyptian opposition MPs but it was not allowed through. Later, permission was given for the MPs themselves to enter Gaza, but they had to leave behind the aid, which consisted of construction materials. An Algerian convoy was also prohibited from entering Gaza before being allowed in.

Despite this, the idea that Rafah should become Gaza's only operational crossing is gaining ground in Israel. Transport Minister Yisrael Katz has said that the Israeli siege of Gaza is wrong, and instead Israel should disengage from the territory entirely, permanently closing its crossings to Gaza. Egypt will become responsible for supplying Gaza with the goods it needs. The Egyptian government, however, has rejected this proposal, saying that Israel wants to evade its responsibility for Gaza and dump it onto Egypt. Such a plan would also exacerbate the separation between the West Bank and Gaza, ending any inter-communication between the two and thus forestalling the possibility of the creation of a Palestinian state. While it is unlikely that Katz's plan will be put into effect, his statement illustrates the pressure that Egypt is under.

Egypt's strategy of collaborating with Israel in the siege has not paid off. This policy has meant that it, quite rightly, shares the blame with Israel for the suffering of the people of Gaza. Following the attack on the convoy, the siege of Gaza re-entered the global spotlight and Egypt was in a very uncomfortable position. While global public opinion is demanding that the siege be lifted, what is being proposed instead is a "humanisation" of the siege – an easing which would allow more goods to be imported into Gaza while still preventing the entry of some essential materials – and therefore preventing Gaza from developing – on the pretext that they could be used for military purposes. This may mean that, because of its faithful collaboration, Egypt may now be asked to assume more responsibility for Gaza – a burden it does not want and feels it cannot handle.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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