The Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt is expected to reopen on a regular basis in September, after the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha. Palestinian sources in the Gaza Strip have reported over the past 10 days that Egypt decided to reopen the crossing at that time, following the completion of extensive renovation work that had been underway since March.
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The renovations, which reports say will allow the passage of goods and protect the crossing against terror attacks, include the installation of a computer system connected to Cairo, sources in Rafah said.
Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, told political commentators and journalists at a meeting last week that the Rafah crossing will very likely open to goods and people right after the holiday, a participant at the meeting, Mohammad al-Ajrami, told the website Falastin Al Youm (which is identified with Islamic Jihad and known for its reliability).
However, according to an August 13 report by Falastin Al Youm, the director of public relations on the Palestinian side of the crossing said the Egyptian authorities had not officially announced their intention to open the crossing immediately after the holiday.
The Rafah crossing has mostly been closed since October 2014. It was only open on 32 non-consecutive days in 2015, while the number was 48 days last year. Since the beginning of 2017 and until this week, the crossing had been opened on only 14 days.
At the same time, severe restrictions have been placed on movement via the Erez crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Over four days last week, some 3,000 pilgrims left for Mecca via the Erez crossing, while about 300 Gaza Strip residents who had been unable to return since March entered Gaza.
The Interior Ministry in the Gaza Strip has a list of some 20,000 people waiting to leave the Strip for various reasons, including for medical treatment, studies or work abroad.
The regular operation of the Rafah crossing was one of the agreements reached between Hamas, Mohammed Dahlan’s faction in Fatah and the Egyptian authorities in talks held in recent months to ease Gaza’s ongoing humanitarian crisis.
The nature of the conditions and new arrangements for passage to Egypt have still not been made public, but a Dahlan associate – Fatah member Sufian Abu Zaida – said last week that the agreement with Egypt cannot be changed.
Nevertheless, some reports indicate that celebrations may be premature. One news website reporting on the possible opening of the Rafah crossing said arrangements would also depend on the security situation in Sinai. People returning to the Gaza Strip from Egypt said they were treated rudely at the many military checkpoints between Cairo and Rafah. A humanitarian mission from Algeria, bringing medical equipment and medicines to Gaza, was detained on the Egyptian side and not allowed to proceed for several days.
The opening of the Rafah crossing is essential to easing conditions in the Gaza Strip, but this will not be a return to full freedom of movement. The trip through northern Sinai is a deterrent to many would-be travelers because of the frightening presence of armed groups in the area. And even if the crossing reopens, most Gazans are not allowed to travel to the West Bank, where they have natural and direct institutional, social, familial and economic connections.
The Rafah crossing was first opened in 1982 for the passage of Palestinians, Israelis and foreign citizens. Its importance to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip grew after the mid-1990s, when Israel began prohibiting Gazans from departing via Ben-Gurion airport or the Karameh (aka Allenby) crossing from the West Bank into Jordan.
With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, the Rafah crossing was earmarked for Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as well as for the passage of goods. Israel began restricting movement and limiting hours there after the second intifada broke out in September 2000. After Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the Rafah crossing – managed by the PA and a European Union force, with Israeli remote-control oversight – was closed for the passage of merchandise.
From the summer of 2005 until June 2006, an average of 40,000 Palestinians crossed at Rafah in both directions each month. But after the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006, and the Hamas takeover of the security apparatus in the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Egypt, in coordination with Israel, cut back on the days the crossing operated and its personnel.
According to the website of Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, until mid-2008 only 8 percent of the people who needed to cross were able to do so. After the Turkish flotilla to Gaza was intercepted by Israel in May 2010, Egypt softened its restrictions, although only 19,000 crossings in both directions were documented.
The changes in Egypt after the events of the Arab Spring in January 2011 led to a relaxing of most restrictions. But after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood there in the summer of 2013, Egypt resumed the restrictions.