Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 August 2008
Issue No. 910
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rafah, round four

Egypt is again confronted with the spill over prospect of devastation and strife in Gaza, Dina Ezzat reports

Click to view caption
Security forces cordon the Rafah border while a Palestinian boy awaits the crossing's opening

For the fourth time in a year, security is being stepped up at the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, the only non-Israeli controlled exit for Gazans to the outside world. Egyptian officials say that security presence is intense, not just within the immediate zone of the crossing but across the city of Rafah and the governorate of Arish and neighbouring governorates.

"There is no way that Palestinians would break the border. They would not be allowed to. This is for sure," said an Egyptian official on condition of anonymity. He added that Egypt had promised Hamas that it would permit the operation of the crossing point "once every few weeks to allow for humanitarian cases" -- students, citizens with overseas work permits and contracts, and the sick and elderly -- to pass on both sides. "Beyond this, we expect Hamas to reign in the masses," he underlined.

According to this official, "clear instructions have been issued to the security forces present on the border with Gaza to upgrade their state of readiness in order to ensure that the border is not violated." Early last month, Egyptian border police used water cannons to prevent scores of Palestinians from breaking into Egypt. Today, Egyptian authorities are determined that there will be no replay of the scene of thousands of Palestinians storming into Egyptian territories, as occurred in January this year after months of stifling sanctions on Gaza imposed by Israel and tacitly accepted by the international community.

Cairo is convinced, according to sources that spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, that continued suffering in Gaza is to a great extent the doing of Hamas. Officials argue that the Hamas take over of the Strip over a year ago, and its consequent elimination of the Palestinian Authority (PA) from this part of the Palestinian territories, "prompted the sanctions and isolation of the Strip".

Egyptian officials complain that their attempts to convince Hamas to give up its control of the Strip or to work seriously towards reconciliation with the Fatah-controlled PA have stumbled "over the desire of Hamas leaders to be in control". "The leaders of Hamas need to be honest with themselves and with their people and sympathisers. They need to say that their desire to stay in control is a clear reason for the continued problems of Gaza, including the almost permanent closure of the Rafah crossing point," one senior official commented.

Speaking to the Weekly by phone, a second-rank Hamas official refuted the Egyptian take on the problem, insisting that, "Egypt's unmasked sympathy for the Fatah PA" is to blame for the closure of the border. "If Egypt has a problem with Hamas leaders, why should it punish the average Palestinian citizen?" said the source, requesting that his name be withheld.

Hamas has repeatedly offered to cooperate in reopening the Rafah crossing point, but Cairo has declined and insisted that the presence of PA officials is mandatory. "We deal with official and legitimate authorities, not with movements that effect a coup," the same senior Egyptian official added. Egypt is not shy about calling for the re- instatement of the PA in Gaza.

On Sunday, a few thousand Palestinians, most with declared Hamas affiliation, commenced a sit- in on the Palestinian side of Rafah to demonstrate their frustration at the continued closure of the crossing. Demonstrators shouted for mercy but they also expressed their anger at Egypt's refusal to open the border. They demanded that Egypt should not be part of an unfair siege imposed on the population of the Strip to punish their political choices. "The problems of Gaza did not start in June 2007. They started in January 2006 with the clear political support that Gazans offered to Hamas in clean and internationally monitored elections," the Hamas source said.

Egypt has maintained that it would not agree to the "unilateral" operation of Rafah as this would be seen as a blow to the little influence the Palestinian Authority still has over Gaza -- namely its claimed right to be present at Gaza's borders. Egyptian officials add that the unilateral operation of Rafah "would encourage Israel to announce an effective and permanent separation of Gaza from the rest of the Palestinian territories". This, they explain, would mean that Israel could exempt itself from its responsibilities as an occupying power, including the provision to Gaza of fuel and electricity, and that the entire Gaza Strip "would fall on Egypt's lap".

"Hamas might wish for this to happen but we don't," the same senior official added.

In Cairo, also on Sunday, scores of Egyptian political activists affiliated to the opposition Kifaya movement demonstrated in front of the Foreign Ministry to demand an end to the closure of the Rafah crossing point on the Egyptian side. Assistant Foreign Minister Wafaa Bassim received some of the demonstrators. She relayed the stated legal and political concerns that prevent a "unilateral" operation of the crossing.

"This argument is not convincing," argued Abdel-Guelil Mustafa, Kifaya's general coordinator. According to Mustafa, "Egypt is a sovereign state and Hamas is an elected political power and as such both sides should handle the Rafah crossing issue away from any Israeli interference." He added: "Egypt has historically contributed much to the struggle of the Palestinians and it should not accept to be party to any sanctions imposed on the Palestinians, whether it likes Hamas or not. It is simply incompatible with Egypt's role and responsibility."

In 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sponsored an agreement between Israel and the PA that allowed for the operation of the Rafah crossing point on the Palestinian side by PA officials, under the supervision of EU monitors. Egypt was liaising with both the PA and EU monitors. This deal was never fully effective as Israel repeatedly prevented EU monitors from reaching the crossing for a range of alleged security concerns. The deal, which expired in 12 months, was not completely suspended until June 2007 with the Hamas takeover in Gaza.

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