Criticism of Israel's Gaza Blockade May Diminish Due to Opening of Rafah Crossing

The opening of the crossing is part of a package of benefits that the new regime in Cairo offered Hamas in exchange for its agreement to reach a reconciliation with Fatah.

The Egyptian authorities are due to open the Rafah crossing tomorrow morning for the almost uninterrupted transit of Palestinians between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. The crossing will remain open six days a week and will operate between 9 A.M. and 5 P.M. The only restriction is for Gazan men aged 18-40, who will require an entry visa issued by the Egyptians.

The opening of the crossing is part of a package of benefits that the new regime in Cairo offered Hamas in exchange for its agreement to reach a reconciliation with Fatah. On the face of it, the nearly complete opening of the crossing without coordination with Israel could trigger many concerns over the possibility that the blockade policy will break down and many terrorists will cross through Rafah into the Gaza Strip. However, the reality is that over the past few years, all terrorists who came into the Strip did so without much difficulty through the extensive system of underground tunnels linking Sinai with the Gaza Strip. Moreover, opening the crossing point is expected to diminish international criticism of Israel over the blockade it has imposed on the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians Rafah border - AP

The interim regime in Egypt has been promising to open the border crossing since the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in February. Under the Mubarak regime, Egypt was a full partner of Israel in imposing the blockade following the rise of Hamas to power after the January 2006 elections, and especially following the abduction of Gilad Shalit in June that same year.

In light of the severe international criticism against Israel that followed the Turkish flotilla incident in which activists were killed during the IDF's violent takeover, Israel changed its policy and significantly eased the process of entry of many goods into the Strip.

The main implication of opening the Rafah crossing will be that regular Palestinians will be able to exit the Strip. Militants on Israel's wanted list and goods had passed without hindrance through the tunnels for years.

Hamas welcomed the Egyptian decision to open the crossing. However, the Egyptian authorities, wary that Hamas may use this opportunity to present itself as the victor, said that Hamas officials would also require entry visas into Egypt if they are aged between 18 and 40.

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom warned on Israel Radio yesterday that the opening of the Rafah crossing "is a dangerous development that could lead to weapons and Al-Qaida smuggling in Gaza."

Also speaking to Israel Radio, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said that the opening of the Gaza-Egypt border crossing is the "first stage in a difficult situation that will be facing Israel." He added, however, that he did not think Egypt was violating its peace treaty with Israel.

Meanwhile, Egypt and both Fatah and Hamas appear determined to move ahead with the establishment of a Palestinian unity government, notwithstanding the severe criticism from Washington. The main conclusion of the Egyptian leadership, as well as of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington last week is that they can expect nothing positive from efforts to appeal to the U.S. administration in the coming months. Their conclusion is that there is no peace process on the horizon, and certainly no peace agreement.

Nonetheless, there appears to be no anger toward U.S. President Barack Obama, but mostly disappointment at his political situation and the recognition that the American president, despite his good will, is simply unable to deliver.

As far as the Egyptians and Palestinians are concerned, Obama is handicapped by a Congress that favors Israel, and this will only be exacerbated in November ahead of the race for the White House. Thus, their conclusion is that they should not wait for any more diplomatic initiatives or major American surprises, and that they should try to implement the reconciliation agreement and possibly gain recognition of statehood from the UN General Assembly in September.