As the war in the Gaza Strip enters its second month and amid Israel’s ongoing bombardment of civilians and ground invasion, the importance of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the occupied Palestinian territory of Gaza increases. The crossing is the only channel for delivering humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, apart from crossings controlled directly by Israel, and no aid is going through them. The Strip is facing a humanitarian catastrophe, after the killing of more than 11,000 Palestinians, most of whom were children and women, and wounding of more than 25,000.
The Gaza Strip has been besieged by Israel and its allies, with Egyptian support, for more than 16 years. It was already suffering from a shortage of fuel, electricity and water, as well as food, medical and pharmaceutical supplies, even before Israel cut supplies completely. Now Israeli intransigence and bombing threats mean that the Rafah crossing is only open intermittently for the entry of humanitarian aid.
Egypt’s position is ambiguous regarding the Rafah crossing, which is the Gaza Strip’s window to the outside world, and the only crossing point that is under the nominal control of an Arab country, and is not subject to the control of the Israeli occupation (although the Israelis have a huge say in whether or not it is opened). Israel controls two crossings into Gaza, which it has closed since 7 October: the Beit Hanoun/Erez crossing for the movement of people, and the Kerem Shalom crossing, designated for goods.
The Egyptian authorities have imposed severe restrictions on transit through the Rafah crossing, which opened in 1979, especially since the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, tightened its control over the Gaza Strip in 2007, having won the legislative election a year earlier. The management of the crossing on the Egyptian side is supervised by the General Intelligence and National Security (an internal intelligence agency), and is secured by soldiers and police.
The Israeli occupation authorities do not have direct control over Rafah, but they do enjoy high-level security coordination with their Egyptian counterparts. This is evident when Egypt’s border 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 — about the possibility of such an incident occurring, but Tel Aviv did not take the warning seriously. An Egyptian intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Cairo had repeatedly warned the Israelis about something big being planned in Gaza, but they underestimated these warnings, according to Associated Press.
The Egyptian position on closing the crossing stems from several considerations, the first of which is security. There is a fear of armed Palestinian elements infiltrating Egypt. This threat has long troubled the Egyptian authorities, especially given the tension in north Sinai and the spread of Daesh and its “Sinai Province” branch.
Moreover, political researcher Mohamed Anan said that Egypt is trying not to provoke Tel Aviv, which enjoys good relations with the regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Israel Defence Forces aircraft have taken part alongside Egyptian forces in a number of military operations in Sinai with the aim of eliminating armed groups there and destroying the tunnels between Sinai and Gaza.
Another consideration relates to Egypt’s political, military and strategic wish to stifle Hamas and thwart its rule in the Gaza Strip. The movement is seen as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, ousted from power by the Egyptian army in the 2013 coup which overthrew democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi.
According to some observers, a fourth justification for keeping the Rafah crossing closed is related to the fear that the Palestinians in Gaza may be pushed into Sinai by Israel. The crossing is the obvious route for such a population displacement. The easy solution to allay such a fear, said Anan, is permanent closure, not taking into account the suffering of the people of Gaza.
The decision to open the crossing may not be a purely Egyptian decision, but rather needs a green light from the US and Israel
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. This means that the decision to open the crossing may not be a purely Egyptian decision, but rather needs a green light from the US and Israel.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry holds Israel responsible for closing the crossing. The occupation state, he told journalists, “has not yet taken a position that allows the opening of the Rafah crossing from the Gaza side.”
However, looking at the latest developments in Gaza and the unbridled Israeli escalation, including an explicit threat to “nuke” the enclave, other considerations may be imposed on Cairo. The Egyptian government is already embarrassed by the delayed transit of humanitarian aid with only a small amount allowed through Rafah, even though Al-Arish Airport in north Sinai is full of relief aircraft and cargo intended for the Palestinians in Gaza.
The total number of aid trucks received by the Palestinian Red Crescent so far is 421 (the normal traffic is 500 per day), but fuel has not been allowed into Gaza yet. So far, 72 aircraft from 17 Arab and other countries have arrived at Al-Arish Airport, carrying about 200 tons of food and medical aid.
The Egyptian government insists that this is due to the stubbornness of the Israeli side in agreeing to a humanitarian “pause” or providing safe corridors for aid. The occupation forces have already bombed ambulances and civilian convoys transporting injured people who were heading to Rafah.
Over the course of a month, the crossing has only been open for a few hours, which allowed foreign passport holders, especially Americans, to leave Gaza, as well as dozens of seriously wounded Palestinians. Israel had to approve the names of those who left, reported Yedioth Ahronoth.
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 travel 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 1979 Camp David peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel.
According to a political expert who spoke to me 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 on the Palestinian side. That was the agreement between Israel and the PA in November 2005.
“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,” stipulated 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 security control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Egypt closed the crossing and has since only opened it intermittently. This followed the withdrawal of the PA security forces and the refusal of European observers to deal with employees affiliated with Hamas.
The Rafah border crossing, therefore, remains a pivotal issue in the ongoing war in Gaza. Its opening is seen as a priority for the Palestinians to overcome a comprehensive political and economic siege. However, its closure places strategic pressure on Hamas to release its hostages and stop firing rockets towards Israel. Apart from anything else, keeping it open is surely a moral and humanitarian imperative if 2.3 million Palestinians are not to die from starvation and preventable illnesses, and even cold in the absence of fuel this winter.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.