MESS Report / Israel Must Change Its Policy on Gaza Blockade

Egypt ends its closure on Gaza and opens Rafah crossing indefinitely after IDF's raid on Gaza flotilla heightened international interest in humanitarian situation in the Hamas-ruled territory.

Last week's Gaza flotilla brought about quite a few dramatic changes in the region. Egypt says it has lifted its closure on the Gaza Strip indefinitely, one week after the Israel Navy's flotilla raid heightened international interest in the plight of the Hamas-ruled enclave.

A spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Hossam Zaki, announced Tuesday that the Rafah crossing that connects Gaza to Egypt will remain open indefinitely.

However, Egypt has yet to permit fully free passage of Palestinians into its territory.

The only Gazans allowed into Sinai are those with specially obtained permits, including sick people, students and others who receive the approval of the Egyptian security forces.

The border crossing was reopened eight days ago immediately after the Israel Navy's storming of a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid, activists and members of the controversial group IHH. In the operation, Israeli commandos killed nine people on board.

Cairo announced that it will keep Rafah open "until further notice." Since last week, thousands of Palestinians crossed into Sinai after months of not being able to leave Gaza.

Hamas police officers checking passports

In practice, the Egyptian regime was Israel's partner in instituting the blockade.

Officials in Jerusalem often claimed that it was Cairo that lobbied Israel to tighten the blockade as a way to pressure Hamas to release kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit and agree to terms on a Palestinian unity government.

"Egypt is the one that is breaking the blockade," said Zaki. "We will not allow the [Israeli] occupation to evade its responsibility."

While allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza via Rafah, Egypt, like Israel, is not permitting construction materials to pass.

Before lifting the closure, Egypt did not allow students and ill Palestinians to leave Gaza, though it did grant entry to Palestinians who obtained special permits. Cairo also limited entry to Hamas legislators as part of its blockade.

The Egyptian closure resulted in a number of violent incidents between its security forces and those of Hamas along the Gaza border.

The most publicized clash happened two years ago, when thousands of Palestinians knocked down the wall that stretches along the boundary with Sinai and entered the peninsula while Egyptian soldiers failed to stop them.

After the incident, Egypt reiterated its position that the Rafah crossing would be opened and closed according to the terms stipulated in the border-passage agreement signed with Israel and the European Union.

This agreement states that the Rafah crossing must be staffed by a contingent of forces from the Palestinian Authority's Presidential Guard, which is loyal to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and a European supervisory force.

Due to the rift between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah faction, no agreement has been reached over the stationing of the Presidential Guard. The PA is dissatisfied with Egypt's decision to reopen Rafah because it fears that the move will further enable Hamas to solidify its rule over the Gaza Strip after it ousted Fatah militias from the area in a bloody coup three years ago.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met on Monday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh. Both leaders discussed new ways to deal with the situation in Gaza.

An Egyptian source said following the meeting that Egypt will finish building the iron wall by the end of the summer which will put an end to the Gaza smuggling tunnels. Other senior officials in Egypt have said that building will be done by the end of the year. Egypt's iron wall is expected to dramatically decrease arms smuggling through Gaza tunnels, although it also may escalate clashes between Israel and Hamas.

This requires Israel to reconsider its policy on the Gaza blockade. Opening the Rafah crossing on the one hand, and the near completion of the iron wall on the other, forces Jerusalem to understand that the continued siege on the Gaza Strip is pointless. It is important and necessary that goods entering Gaza undergo a security check. However there is no longer a point in preventing chocolate and jam from entering Gaza – that won't aid Israel's security interests, free Gilad Shalit, or topple the Hamas rule.