Egypt’s Rafah crossing predicament: A policy dilemma?

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya News
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A few days after the start of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, former ambassador and deputy foreign minister Ibrahim Yousri announced his intention to sue the Egyptian government over its closure of the Rafah Crossing between the beleaguered strip and Egypt.

Yousri, who filed a similar lawsuit against ousted President Hosni Mubarak for the same reason, called the closing of the crossing “a crime against humanity” and cited an earlier report issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs under the title “The Humanitarian impact of reduced access between Gaza and Egypt” and which traced the repercussions of the closure since September 2013, that is two months after the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood rule.

“The Egyptian government is taking part in the blockade on Gaza and is actually implementing till this moment a decision taken by late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon,” he said in the press interview. Yousri demanded that the crossing be opened on permanent basis and argued that partial opening is not enough in the light of the daily casualties of the Israeli aggression. “Gaza is being heavily bombed and opening the crossing for limited times does not help with the urgent need for medical supplies and the increasing number of the injured,” he explained.

Yousri, who previously led a campaign against the export of Egyptian natural gas to Israel, insisted that the Egyptian authorities have no good reason for keep the crossing closed. “What is the point of closing the crossing as long as no security threat in involved?” asked Yousri, thus underlining the crux of the entire controversy over the opening/closure of Gaza’s only gate to the outside world and which basically revolves around the conflict between urgency of opening the border for humanitarian reasons and the apprehension of doing so for security concerns.

A group of Egyptian parties and revolutionary movements issued a joint statement calling upon President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to order the permanent and unconditional opening the Rafah crossing. “The crossing should remain open at all times regardless of whether there is an Israeli aggression or not,” said the statement. “It is a matter of survival for the Palestinian people and should not be subject to negotiation.” The statement added that Egypt’s position on Palestine should not be associated with factional infighting.

“The relationship between Egypt and Palestine must rise above any disagreements with one faction or another for the people of both countries have fought the same battles and the Palestinian cause will remain the Arabs’ major concern.” Signatories to the statement, which included leftist, liberal, and Islamist parties, argued that the closure of the crossing implies an endorsement on the part of the current Egyptian regime of the aggression on Gaza. “Closing the only exit for the people of Gaza and imposing restrictions on aid passing through it means that the regime is supporting this aggression.” The statement also saw no contradiction between opening the crossing and “taking all the necessary measures to maintain Egypt’s national security.”

Ayad al-Bazam, spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry, criticized the Egyptian government over the abrupt closure of the Rafah Crossing on July 11 after announcing its partial opening on July 10. “The crossing was closed once again in the face of the injured without any reasons after ambulances and buses were all ready to cross after the opening was announced,” he wrote. “We regret this step on the part of the Egyptian authorities and which demonstrates indifference towards the suffering of the injured.” Bazam added that hundreds of Gazans were wounded and needed urgent medical care as medical supplies in the strip are running out.

In his article “Egypt’s hard line over border,” Lee Keath argued that by insisting on not opening the border, the Egyptian government could at some point be partially held accountable for the increase of the casualties of the Israeli aggression. “As civilian casualties rise in Gaza, Egypt’s government runs the risk that Egyptians will blame it for not making concessions that could stop the bloodshed,” he wrote. It is for this reason, Lee argues, that Egyptian media has been engaged in constant demonization of Hamas. “The vilification of Hamas in Egypt has only increased since the Gaza war erupted,” Lee explained. “Egyptian TV stations and newspapers—which are overwhelmingly pro-government—have issued a stream of commentary that sounds a lot like what is coming from Israel: Hamas is to blame for the fighting and is exploiting civilian deaths for its own gain.”

For Egyptian authorities, the Rafah Crossing “is a red line,” as Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri put it. Shoukri explained that Egyptian policy as far as the crossing is concerned is related to the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula. “We are not in any way party to the blockade on Gaza and we will do our best to help the Palestinian people,” he said. Shoukri added that it is thanks to Egypt that a ground war was not launched in Gaza and that the international community is praising Egypt’s ceasefire initiative. “However, if the initiative fails, those who reject it will be held accountable for the current situation,” he added in reference to Hamas.

He also said that Egypt rejects any suggestion of international supervision on the crossing, also in reference to a proposal by Hamas. Several Egyptian analysts see Hamas’s insistence on the opening of the crossing while knowing that Egypt would not grant this demand as a strategy to keep the conflict going in a way that serves its interests.

“Hamas does not want to solve the problem, but rather to achieve political victory at the expense of Palestinian blood,” said military expert and former governor of North Sinai Ali Hefzi. “If Egypt opens the crossing Hamas will resume using smuggling tunnels, which made them extremely rich. They even established an authority for the management of tunnels and imposed taxes on the use of these tunnels.” Hefzi criticized Hamas for demanding that the crossing be placed under international supervision, another request the movement knows beforehand would not be granted. “Hamas knows that Egypt will never accept that,” he said. “Would Hamas dare to request the same from Israel?” According to Hefzi, Hamas aims at embarrassing both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

According to Peter Beaumont, the main reason for Egypt’s unwillingness to open the Rafah crossing is the fact that this is a major Hamas demand in the ceasefire negotiations or because “Egypt does not want to gift Hamas something that would increase its popularity—which had been on the wane in part as a result of the hardship resulting from the Egyptian border closure,” as he put it. Beaumont quotes Hamas official Hamad Nahal, who complained that since July 2013, the crossing would remain closed for up to 40 consecutive days: “It is our lifeline. It is why it is so important in the ceasefire talks.”

In the same article, published in The Guardian, Beaumont quotes Palestinian analyst Omar Shaban, who does not agree that the Rafah Crossing is the main plight of Palestinians in Gaza, especially when compared to other pressing problems like water shortage, unemployment, and poverty, and argues that Hamas wants it open mainly to further its own agenda. “Hamas focuses on itself, which is why Rafah is important to it,” he said. “Of course, they want Rafah to open to ease the lives of people here and to show it was them that got it [open].” Gaza-based political scientist Mkhaimar Abu Sadr, also quoted by Beaumont, begs to differ as he views the opening of the crossing as vital. “In the end the only thing that can really end the bloodshed is a lifting of the siege,” he said.

For Beaumont, Hamas’s escalation of attacks on Israel could be seen as the group’s strategy to provoke a ground incursion that would earn it a stronger position in the talks, in which all demands “are negotiable, but not Rafah.” Egyptian authorities, on the other hand, are not yielding to pressure from Hamas in any way. “Egypt has clamped down on smuggling tunnels that for several years made the town of Rafah and Hamas rich,” Beaumont explained. “It does not want the crossing controlled by Hamas, but by Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.”

In his article “The tragedy of Rafah Crossing,” Motasem A. Dalloul also conceded that the current standoff over the crossing is linked to the current tension between Hamas and the Egyptian regime, particularly president elect Sisi. “The new Egyptian president Sisi, who closed the Rafah crossing after carrying out a military coup last July against the first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, has problems with Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for years, because of the Islamic resistance movement’s close relations with his enemy—the Muslim Brotherhood,” he wrote.

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