Allowing Gaza-Egypt Border Crossings to Open, Israel Renders Its Blockade Useless

Will Israel take advantage of political circumstances that forced Hamas to revisit its own policy? Or will it continue to only view Gaza through rifle sights

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The Rafah border crossing
Palestinian and Egyptian flags wave over two photos of Palestinian President Abbas and Egypt's President Sissi hanging on the main gate of the Rafah border crossing, Nov. 1, 2017.Credit: Khalil Khamra / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The official transfer control over the border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Egypt to the Palestinian unity government was marked by the playing of two anthems, the Palestinian and the Egyptian. By all rights, the Israeli national anthem should have been played as well, as the agreement over which Egypt has been slaving for the last couple of months wouldn’t have been born if Israel hadn’t agreed to it. In contrast to its usual policy, that it not only won’t cooperate with Hamas, but also not with a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas as well as Fatah, Israel is actually happy with the new arrangements.

This isn’t the only aspect of the situation in which Israel is ignoring parts of the agreement over the crossing points signed between Israel and the Palestinians in 2005. Even though Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have said that management of the crossing points, particularly the opening of the Rafah crossing point between Gaza and Egypt, would have to be based on the 2005 agreement, this time the arrangements include no supervision by the European Union.

The arrangements when it comes to the supervision of the passage of goods and the movement of people over the border won’t be as set forth in the original agreement. That's particularly true at the Rafah border crossing, which is expected to open in a couple of weeks. The Egyptians aren’t bound by the original agreement because they weren’t signatories to it. They have therefore freed themselves of Israel’s terms for opening the crossing point.

The handing over of control of the border crossings to the Palestinian government, as part of the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and the warming of relations between Egypt and Hamas puts Israel on the horns of a diplomatic and security dilemma. Israel finds itself cooperating with the Palestinian national unity government, despite its official position. (The Israeli excuse is that control over the crossing points would be in the hands of Palestinian Authority police, so the agreement is kosher, but the Palestinian police are working in full coordination with Hamas). The anticipated opening of the Rafah border crossing also renders any Israeli blockade of Gaza irrelevant.

Egypt, which had been Israel’s wholehearted partner in the blockade, is effectively withdrawing with its unwritten arrangement with Israel on the matter. It’s true that Egypt will continue to check the identity of the people passing through the Rafah crossing and will try to stop terrorists from moving between Gaza and Sinai. But when it comes to the economic punishment of Gaza as a means of crushing Hamas, Egypt is making a 180 degree turn, embracing Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, meaning that the Palestinian national unity government is seen as the entity responsible for the State of Palestine.

The transfer of control over the crossing points is just the first step in shaping a united Palestinian government, in the context of Palestinian and Egyptian recognition that a full peace agreement based on a two-state solution isn’t realistic as long as Israel remains controlled by an extreme right-wing government, and as long as the United States treats the peace process as light entertainment. Despite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ statement that any united Palestinian government would have to recognize the State of Israel, obviously that doesn’t bind Hamas at this time, and it actually has no real implications.

Therefore it’s better to accept what is possible, practically speaking, before getting into a debate over the ideological aspects. Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas' political wing in Gaza, and Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political bureau, are demonstrating pragmatic leadership at this stage. They not only supported the change in the Hamas charter in May, but also accepted Egypt’s terms, backed by Syria and the United Arab Emirates.

For Hamas, this is a strategic turning point that attests to the fact that it would be willing to forgo the chance to renew its dependence on Iran (despite the well-publicized visit by senior Hamas figures in Tehran last month) and to prepare for political moves in the Palestinian territories such as parliamentary and presidential elections, which could deliver additional dividends. If the Palestinian reconciliation also yields economic benefits for Gaza, such as the building of a new power plant – which has already been budgeted by the United Arab Emirates -- along perhaps with a port, Hamas could base its political power less on “resistance” and more on economic progress.

The Palestinian reconciliation agreement hasn’t been fully implemented yet. Its execution is rife with potential bombshells. It could fall apart in the upcoming stage involving the allocation of jobs and budgets. Disarming Hamas isn’t on the agenda. Nor is there any agreement on the timing of elections. But even just handing over control of the border crossing points could moderate the power struggles, as no side wants to appear responsible for sabotaging the development of Gaza and perpetuating the rift within the Palestinian people. But it should be borne in mind that such reasoning didn’t hold sway over the Palestinian Authority and Hamas during the decade-plus of the blockade on Gaza.

In this context, it's worth noting the wisdom of Egypt, which agreed to open the Rafah crossing point as a reward for the reconciliation but did not make opening it contingent on implementing the reconciliation. It settled instead for the condition that the crossing points would be run on the Palestinian side by the forces of the Palestinian unity government. In the process, it assumed the leadership of the Palestinian political system, regained its role as sponsor not only economically and politically but militarily as well. Preventing the expected conflict between Israel and Gaza is important evidence of this; and it also ends Israel’s exclusivity over managing Gaza’s affairs.

The question now is whether Israel will also manage to take advantage of the political circumstances that forced Hamas to revisit its own policy, and if it will cooperate with the Palestinian unity government; or whether it will stick to a policy of slogans that only views Gaza through rifle sights. Purportedly anyone who doesn’t want to pursue the peace process and views “economic peace” as a way to evade political negotiations should be in favor of the Palestinian reconciliation and acknowledge its political byproducts in shoring up the Palestinian economy. But logic isn’t exactly the watchword that has been guiding Israeli policy in the territories.

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