Gazans attempting to cross into Egypt at the Rafah crossing.
(photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS)
Despite great expectations raised by politicians and media reports, Gaza’s Rafah crossing with Egypt will only be open “intermittently” and not continuously when renovations on its Egyptian side are finished, according to a senior Hamas leader.
Salah Bardawil, a member of the Hamas political bureau, told Hamas’s Al-Aksa television on Tuesday that Egyptian intelligence is conditioning a complete opening of Rafah on the achievement of “complete security in Sinai” where Islamic State is waging an insurgency against the government and army of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Egypt has in the past accused Hamas of supporting the insurgents and allowing them to use Gaza as a refuge – though in recent months Cairo-Gaza relations have thawed on the understanding that Hamas will meet Egyptian demands for security steps along Gaza’s border with Sinai.
Bardawil termed the Egyptian linkage “frustrating” and “a backtracking”, adding that “no one can guarantee full security anywhere.” He said the Egyptians had made clear in “side discussions” that the crossing would be open intermittently once the renovations are finished.
“We are talking about an intermittent opening every week one or two or three times,” he said. “It’s possible that can happen but that is connected to [completing] the renovation of the crossing.”
“The current pace is slow,” he said, adding that if it continues that way it will take months to complete.
Although disappointing for Gazans who view Rafah as their only lifeline to the world given Israeli strictures at Erez crossing, its opening several times a week would represent a considerable improvement over the current situation.
According to Israeli rights group Gisha, which monitors movement in and out of Gaza, Rafah was closed for five months straight until it was opened last week to allow the crossing into Egypt of Mecca- bound pilgrims. As of last week, it had only been open for 11 days in all of 2017, none of them consecutive. The restrictive Egyptian policy has stemmed from Egypt’s view, until recently, of Hamas as an enemy who should be pressured and toppled because of its association with the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Sisi seized power in 2013.
Last month, Muhammad Dahlan, the Egyptian-backed former Gaza security chief and current bitter rival of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates, said after reaching a cooperation deal with Hamas that was facilitated by Cairo, that the Rafah crossing would be open by late August. “Everyone who needs to travel will be able to travel,” he told the Associated Press.
But in fact, Egypt wants to make sure that Hamas addresses all of its security concerns before it moves to free up the crossing, according to Naji Shurab, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
“Egypt wants to see that Hamas has distanced itself far from the Muslim Brotherhood. It realizes Hamas can help combat Islamic State in Sinai by closing tunnels, preserving borders and exchanging intelligence information. When Egyptian authorities realize that Hamas has achieved everything than I think Rafah will be opened permanently.”
One possibility for the opening of Rafah is that on the Palestinian side the terminal itself would be staffed by Dahlan’s people while Hamas officials would have a post outside the terminal, according to Mkhaimar Abusada, also a political scientist at Al-Azhar University. This would spare Egypt from being accused of dealing directly with Hamas in contravention of the international community’s designation of it as a terrorist group.
Egypt’s thaw with Hamas reflects not only its Sinai security needs, but also the realization that its strategy of trying to weaken Hamas simply did not work, Abusada said. “They thought maybe it is time to shift gears,” he said.
In addition, warming relations with Hamas and backing Dahlan’s bid for more influence in Gaza can be understood as emanating from dissatisfaction with Abbas, in Abusada’s view.