As the war in the Gaza Strip enters its second consecutive month, amid violent Israeli bombardment of civilians, the importance of the Rafah land crossing between Egypt and the Occupied Palestinian Territories doubles. This crossing is the only means for delivering aid to the Gaza Strip, which is facing a humanitarian catastrophe after the killing of about 10,000 people, most of whom were children and women, and wounding more than 25,000.
The Gaza Strip, which has been besieged for more than 16 years, has been suffering from a shortage of fuel, electricity, water and a scarcity of food, medical and pharmaceutical supplies, amid Israeli intransigence in opening the crossing and allowing the entry of humanitarian aid convoys.
Questions and suspicions are increasing about the ambiguity of the Egyptian position regarding the Rafah crossing (north Sinai), which is the Gaza Strip’s window to the outside world, and the only crossing point that is under the control of an Arab country and is not subject to the control of the Israeli occupation.
Israel controls two crossings with Gaza, which it has closed since the start of the war on 7 October, namely the Beit Hanoun/Erez crossing, designated for the movement of people, and the Kerem Shalom crossing being designated for goods.
The Egyptian authorities impose severe restrictions on transit movement through the Rafah crossing (opened in 1979), especially since the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, tightened its control over the Gaza Strip mid-2007.
The management of the crossing on the Egyptian side is supervised by sovereign bodies, led by General Intelligence and National Security (an internal intelligence agency), and is secured by army and police forces.
The Israeli Occupation authorities do not have direct control over the crossing, but they do enjoy high-level security coordination with their Egyptian counterpart. This coordination is evident since Egypt’s closures often coincide with Israel’s tightening of restrictions on Gaza.
Egypt is often accused by Palestinian, Arab and Islamic circles of participating in the siege of the Gaza Strip and aligning itself with Tel Aviv’s demands to tighten the noose on the Palestinian Resistance.
The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives, Michael McCaul, revealed that Egypt warned the Israelis three days before the 7 October attack (Operation Al-Aqsa Flood) of the possibility of such an event occurring, but Tel Aviv did not take the warning seriously.
An Egyptian intelligence official, on condition of anonymity, said that Cairo had repeatedly warned the Israelis about something big being planned from Gaza, but they underestimated these warnings, according to the American Associated Press.
The Egyptian position on closing the crossing stems from several reasons and considerations, the first of which is security, related to the fear of armed Palestinian elements infiltrating the Egyptian side, a concern that has long troubled the Egyptian authorities over the past years, especially since Egypt is suffering from security tension in northern Sinai, with the expansion of ISIS across its local branch, the Sinai Province.
The second reason, according to political researcher, Mohamed Anan, is trying not to provoke Tel Aviv, which enjoys good relations with the regime of the current Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, based on understandings and coordination between the two sides. These understandings amounted to the point of allowing the Occupation aircrafts to participate with the Egyptian forces in a number of military operations carried out in Sinai (north-east of Egypt), with the aim of eliminating armed groups there and destroying the tunnels between Sinai and Gaza.
The third consideration relates to Egypt’s desire, politically, militarily and strategically, to stifle the Hamas Movement and thwart its experience in ruling the Gaza Strip, especially since it considers it an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian army ousted from power in the coup of 3 July, 2013.
According to observers, there is a fourth justification that imposed itself on the Egyptian position, which may stand behind the continued closure of the crossing, related to fears of displacing Palestinians to Sinai. Here, Cairo decided that opening the crossing might be a suitable bridge to implement this plan and, therefore, it chose the easy solution, which is permanent closure, not taking into account the suffering of the people of Gaza, according to Anan.
It is certain that opening the crossing is a card on the negotiating table between regional and international mediators and Hamas, in an attempt to put pressure on the Movement in exchange for the release of its prisoners, which means that the decision to open the crossing may not be a purely Egyptian decision, but rather awaits an American and Israeli green light.
Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, held Israel responsible for closing the crossing, saying in press statements that it “has not yet taken a position that allows the opening of the Rafah crossing from the Gaza side.”
But looking at the latest developments in the situation in Gaza, the unlimited Israeli escalation and the explicit threat to strike Gaza with a nuclear bomb, may impose other considerations onto Cairo, which is embarrassed by the delayed arrival of humanitarian supplies and allowing only little aid to pass through, while Al-Arish Airport (north Sinai) is filled with relief planes and cargo from Arab and foreign countries.
The total number of aid trucks received by the Palestinian Red Crescent reached 421, while fuel has not been allowed to enter the Gaza Strip yet. So far, 72 planes from 17 Arab and foreign countries have arrived at Al-Arish Airport, carrying about 200 tons of food and medical aid.
The Egyptian government says this is due to the stubbornness of the Israeli side in agreeing to a humanitarian truce or providing safe corridors for aid, and that the Occupation planes have already bombed ambulances and civilian convoys transporting injured people who were heading to the Rafah crossing.
Over the course of a month, the crossing was opened for only a few hours, which were used for the exit of foreign passport holders, especially Americans, in addition to dozens of seriously wounded people, after Israeli approval of a list of those names, according to the Hebrew newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.
Terms and guarantees
It seems that Egypt wants clear guarantees from Tel Aviv and Washington, first to avoid a mass exodus of Palestinians from Gaza; second, to ensure the return of the wounded and their companions to the Gaza Strip after complete recovery and, third, to amend security arrangements agreed upon in Sinai, specifically in Area C (which includes Rafah) at the request of one of the two parties and by their agreement, in accordance with the Camp David Peace Treaty that was signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979.
According to a political expert who spoke to Middle East Monitor on condition of anonymity, Cairo hopes to eliminate Hamas from the region and restore the role of the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, in managing the Rafah crossing from the Palestinian side, according to the crossings’ agreement signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in November 2005.
The crossing agreement stipulates: “The crossing is subject to Palestinian-Israeli control under European sponsorship, which monitors the right of the Palestinian side to cross and trade in a way that does not harm Israeli security.”
According to the agreement, “the working mechanism at the crossing will be conducted in a way that allows Palestinian and Israeli security officials to monitor the crossing with cameras that are remotely controlled from a control room managed by the European Union.”
After Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Egypt closed the crossing and opened it intermittently after that. This followed the withdrawal of the Palestinian Authority security forces from it, and the refusal of European observers to deal with employees affiliated with the Hamas Movement.
In light of this, the Rafah crossing, and the dispute over its operating mechanisms and the issue of closing or opening it, remains a pivotal point in the course of the ongoing war in Gaza, with its opening being considered a priority for the residents of the Gaza Strip to overcome a comprehensive political and economic siege. In return, its closure is a strategic pressure card on Hamas to release prisoners and stop the firing of rockets towards Israeli settlements. However, continuing to keep it open will remain a moral and humanitarian necessity to save 2.3 million Palestinians from death due to shortages of food, medicine and fuel.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.