Friday’s horrifying mosque attack in north Sinai is reverberating in the Gaza Strip, with Egypt’s consequent closure of the Rafah Crossing burying any lingering hopes by residents that it will turn any time soon into a viable lifeline to the outside world.
The main benefit Gazans hoped to gain from reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas – an escape hatch from their open air prison – is not materializing. And frustration is mounting both with the continued closure of Rafah and the slow, uncertain pace of Hamas-Fatah negotiations.
Even before the massacre in Bir al-Abed in which 305 people were killed, it became clear that Egypt was not ready to open Rafah on a regular basis, despite Palestinian Authority security forces taking control of the crossing from Hamas on November 1, as part of the landmark, but only preliminary, reconciliation agreement reached October 12 in Cairo.
“Fatah said that if there was reconciliation, if the PA took control of the passage and the presidential guard was on the border, it would lead to a permanent reopening,” said Hani Masri, head of the Masarat think-tank in Ramallah. “Now it’s become clear that opening is not related to that and that it is the security situation in Sinai that determines when it will and will not be open.”
As reported in The Jerusalem Post
, Hamas leader Salah Bardawil, returning from a round of follow-up talks in the Egyptian capital last week, complained of slow progress and said the issue of opening Rafah had not even been discussed.
“The Palestinian people are going to suffer what they have been suffering for a longer period of time. That is our fate,” he said.
Egypt opened Rafah for three days last week and was slated to open it for another three days starting Saturday. Now it is closed until further notice.
Despite the closure, analysts expect Egypt to work even harder to achieve Palestinian reconciliation in the wake of the mosque attack. On Monday, a senior Egyptian intelligence official, Brig.-Gen.
Hamam Abu Zaid and the Egyptian Consul-General in Ramallah Khalid Sami crossed into the Strip through the Erez checkpoint and met with Palestinian Authority Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Abu Amr to discuss reconciliation.
“Egypt is very determined to go ahead with reconciliation,” said Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. “It needs stability and good security in the Gaza Strip and on the borders. If the humanitarian crisis continues in Gaza, this is fertile ground for radical Islam and creates instability in Gaza which can move southwest into Sinai.”
Klein expects Cairo to press Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to be more flexible in negotiations and lift sanctions he has maintained on Gazans, such as cutting salaries of PA workers and halting payments for electricity.
While Masri believes the Egyptians can be taken at face value when they say the closure is a function of the security situation in Sinai, other analysts argue that Egypt has used its control over the crossing as leverage against Hamas. “It’s the main tool of pressure they have against Hamas and they use it as best they can,” said Ofir Winter, an Egypt specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Hamas cooperation is essential for Egypt in grappling with its security challenges in north Sinai, Winter said. “From Egypt’s point of view, there is a sharpening understanding that the heart of the problem is among the Beduin population of north Sinai,” some of whom have turned to smuggling between Sinai and Gaza.
“It’s clear to the Egyptians that they need to take economic steps and create [alternative] sources of livelihood, but they also want to sever the very problematic economic-terroristic connection between Gaza and Sinai.”
Understandings reached with Hamas in June – according to which the Islamist group committed to seal Gaza’s borders with Sinai to prevent movement of fighters and weapons, and the efforts at Hamas-Fatah reconciliation – reflect the Egyptian interest in cutting the links between Gaza and north Sinai, Winter said.
Rafah’s availability as a conduit for ordinary Gazans has been subject over the last decade to the vicissitudes of both Palestinian and Egyptian politics. The border was virtually shut in 2007, after Hamas seized power in the Strip, with the Egyptian sanction paralleling Israel’s tight curbs on the Erez crossing. Rafah’s use was highly restricted in the following years until Muhammad Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood regime was close to Hamas, gained power in 2011. When Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted the brotherhood and took office in 2013, Egypt reimposed the tight closure.
According to the rights group Gisha, Rafah was open for only 17 days in the first half of 2017, none consecutively.
Beginning in June, Hamas- Egypt relations improved dramatically, raising hopes Rafah would be opened. Egypt had in the past accused Hamas of supporting the Sinai insurgents and allowing them to use Gaza as a refuge. But now it expected Hamas to become an ally in combating the insurgency. In return, Hamas leaders hoped the Egyptians would overturn their policy on Rafah.
But in August, a disappointed Bardawil told Hamas’s al-Aksa television that Rafah would be opened only “intermittently” once renovations on its Egyptian side were finished.
Egyptian intelligence, he said, was conditioning a complete opening of Rafah on the achievement of “complete security” in Sinai. It seems Egypt wanted to use Rafah as leverage to make sure Hamas rigorously applied the security steps.
Still, when Hamas and Fatah reached their agreement two months later, and after PA security forces took control of the crossing, the public expected Egypt would finally change its policy.
But even before Friday’s attack, there were signs this expectation would not be quickly met.
According to Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s al-Azhar University, the Egyptians made clear to Palestinian delegates in Cairo last week that use of Rafah would continue to be curtailed. “The Egyptians told the Palestinian delegates that they have concerns about the security of Palestinian travelers in Sinai [because of the insurgents] and that there is a security problem for the Palestinians themselves making the eight-hour drive from Rafah to Cairo.”
Moreover, Abusada said the Egyptians wanted to restrict the flow of people from Gaza into Egypt because they had discovered that some of the insurgents staging attacks on Egyptian forces were Palestinians from Gaza.
The result of the Egyptian policy is widespread frustration.
According to Gisha, about 30,000 Gazans are currently waiting for a chance to exit through Rafah. “Palestinians thought the closure was because of the Hamas takeover in 2007,” Abusada said. “With the reconciliation efforts, they were hopeful Rafah would be open again and that they would be able to get in and out like human beings. But now, that seems illusory and it seems that Rafah may never be open again because of the security situation in Sinai.”
Palestinians, he said “are very frustrated with the reconciliation and very disillusioned that Rafah won’t be open.”