In a dramatic move toward normalized relations between Egypt and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the Egyptian government is to reopen the Rafah crossing on its Gaza border to regular pedestrian traffic starting on Saturday.
Thursday’s announcement of the move, which was immediately hailed by both Fatah and Hamas, was received with concern in Israel, however.
An officer from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) warned that it could lead to an increase in the flow of weapons and terrorists from Egypt into Gaza.
Vice Premier Silvan Shalom slammed the planned reopening as “dangerous,” and urged the international community to prevent it.
The reopening of the sensitive border crossing after four years – especially without any independent monitoring – could enable Hamas to transfer into Gaza larger quantities of weapons, as well as terrorists who underwent training in Syria and Lebanon, the officer said.
“There are already vast quantities of weaponry being smuggled into the Gaza Strip via the tunnels under the border with Egypt,” the officer said. “If the border is opened, we can assume that still larger amounts will be brought in.”
The pedestrian crossing has been closed since Hamas took over Gaza in June 2007, but it has been opened intermittently for humanitarian cases and other special-travel needs.
Hamas said on Thursday it hoped Rafah would be opened to enable goods to cross in the near future, as well. Egypt is said to have reportedly assured Israel that there are no such plans.
According to COGAT, some 162,000 people passed through the crossing in 2010 alone.
The government refrained on Thursday from formally responding to Saturday’s opening. “First we have to see how it will operate before responding,” one diplomatic official said.
Another government official said Israel was holding “discreet” discussions with the Egyptian authorities over the matter, and that Israel had made clear its security concerns.
According to government officials, Israel has not invited the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) – which formerly sat with a joint Israeli-Palestinian team at Kerem Shalom to help monitor crossing activity – to return to the crossings, and it was not immediately clear whether this would happen.
When the crossing was open from November 25, 2005 – and until its closure on June 9, 2007 – its activities were monitored by Israel and EUBAM. EUBAM can only return by invitation from Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
EUBAM spokesman Benoit Cusin said his organization welcomed the Rafah opening and added that it was ready to return to the crossing, once political and security conditions allowed.
He said that EUBAM wanted to do this based on the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access signed by Israel and the PA. On Thursday, the EU Council extended the EUBAM mandate until December.
Political consultations are ongoing with the PA, Egypt and Israel in this regard, he said.
But Hamas legislator Salah Bardaweel said the border should be under the exclusive control of the Palestinians and Egyptians.
He said that Hamas was expecting much more from Egypt.
“The Gaza Strip is under a strict siege and the people are facing economic, health and education problems,” Bardaweel said. “We hope that the new government in Egypt will take this into consideration.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in his speech on Tuesday to the US Congress, slammed EUBAM, saying that the European observers “evaporated overnight” when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip.
Inviting the observers back at this point would be problematic, one official said, because it would mean they would engage with Hamas authorities in control of Gaza – something prohibited until Hamas gives up terrorism, recognizes Israel and accepts previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
Shalom spoke out on Thursday against the opening, noting that it was dangerous in the absence of international supervision. He did not specify if he meant EUBAM or another kind of monitoring body.
Shalom told Israel Radio that Israel must do everything possible to persuade the international community to prevent the opening.
“This is a dangerous development that could lead to the smuggling of weapons, explosives and al-Qaida agents into Gaza,” he said.
Homeland Security Minister Matan Vilna’i also warned that opening the crossing would be problematic for Israel.
United Arab List-Ta’al MK Ahmed Tibi welcomed it, however, and urged the IDF to end its naval blockade on the Gaza Strip.
“The opening of the crossing is a direct result of the new regime in Egypt and the Palestinian reconciliation,” Tibi said. “It will do much to ease the naval siege that continues and the difficulties caused by closings at the Erez crossing. The world cannot tolerate the humiliation of the people of Gaza who do not enjoy the freedom to travel.
Perhaps now people who needed medical attention will be able to receive it.”
Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, based in Tel Aviv, also welcomed Rafah’s opening.
“The opening of Rafah for travel abroad is a welcome incremental improvement, but it does not resolve the need for Israel to restore access between Gaza and the West Bank. Israel has cited security concerns at Rafah; the best way to address those concerns is a comprehensive arrangement with all parties to respect the Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement and respond to legitimate security concerns,” Gisha Executive Director, Sari Bashi said.
She also called on Israel to fully open two crossings from Gaza into Israel.
At present, goods flow between Israel and Gaza through Kerem Shalom, but few exports are allowed out of Gaza, and limits are placed on the import of construction material.
Pedestrian crossing from Gaza into Israel, at Erez, is limited to humanitarian cases and special arrangements for journalists and diplomats, as well as medical and other professionals.
Activists have continued to call for the government to fully open Gaza’s borders.
Israel on Thursday continued its discussions in key capitals around the
world to try and prevent another Gaza flotilla seen as likely after the
Turkish elections on June 12.
The leaders of the pro-Hamas Turkish IHH organization – which organized
the Mavi Marmara-led flotilla last May, and is behind this year’s
planned flotilla – have said they will continue with plans to set sail
in a matter of weeks, regardless of whether the Rafah crossing is open
or closed.Khaled Abu Toameh, Gil Hoffman and Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.