Opening Rafah

There was never a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and now its populace is no longer being denied access to the rest of the world either.

Rafah Crossing 465 4 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rafah Crossing 465 4
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Our government’s concerns that the opening of the Rafah crossing by Egypt will increase the chances of arms smuggling into Gaza are legitimate. Its fears of terrorists exploiting the crossing are well-founded. But arms and terrorists are finding their way into Gaza anyway and Egypt’s move might, in the final analysis, constitute a less than unremittingly negative development for Israel, especially if Cairo maintains security control there and does not allow the unsupervised transfer of goods.
Egypt’s change of policy, reopening the crossing to pedestrian traffic after a four-year closure, is a reflection of Egypt’s new orientation in the wake of president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster rather than a shift designed to advance Israeli interests in any way. Ahead of September’s parliamentary elections, Egyptian decision makers in the interim government are building bridges with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is expected to be a big winner at the polls. The warming of ties between Egypt and the Hamas, against the backdrop of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendancy, underlines the dangers lurking for Israel in the Arab Spring.
One major negative consequence of the reopening of the Rafah crossing is readily foreseeable. It will boost Hamas’s falling popularity vis-a-vis Fatah. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in March and April found that support for Hamas had fallen among those living in Gaza to only 34 percent compared to 75% giving a positive rating to Fatah.
By way of comparison, in 2007, 62% of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip rated Hamas favorably. The Israeli-imposed blockade, which many Gazans evidently realize is a direct result of Hamas’s belligerence against Israel, plainly contributed to this fall in popularity. Underming Hamas was, in fact, the only express Israeli objective that was significantly achieved by the blockade, which also set as goals the release of St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit and prevention of arms smuggling.
But while opening the Rafah crossing might strengthen Hamas, the move might also gradually lead to Israel’s complete “disengagement” from Gaza – six years after the formal Israeli attempt to disconnect itself. The painful and polarizing forced evacuation of thousands of law-abiding Jewish residents, accompanied by a complete military withdrawal, was undertaken by prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 with the specific goal of unloading the diplomatic liability caused by Israel’s “occupation” there.
Far from leading to the creation of a mini-Palestinian state there willing to live in peace and maintain correct diplomatic and economic relations with both Egypt and Israel, Gaza two years later was violently taken over by Hamas, and has continued to constitute a launching ground for terrorist attacks, Kassam rockets and mortar shells.
In response, Israel, together with Egypt, imposed a land, sea and air blockade. In the often distorted international perception, Israel, though not Egypt, was routinely depicted as an oppressor that had turned the entire Strip into a giant prison, with far too little emphasis placed on the self-evident security concerns that underpinned Israeli policy. Israel has been widely disparaged despite facilitating Gazans’ access to basic necessities, coordinating the day to day needs of residents there and working in conjunction with UNRWA, the UN’s World Food Program, the World Health Organization and other humanitarian organizations.
NOW, WITH the reopening of the Rafah crossing, there is a path open to the original goal of disengagement – the complete ending of Israeli responsibility for Gaza, and the fostering of self-reliance there. As long as Hamas, an organization bent on the destruction of Israel, remains in power, the border between Israel and Gaza will remain sealed. But now, Gazans’ ties to the outside world can be rerouted through Cairo.
Despite the blockade, Hamas has managed to smuggle in outrageously large amounts of arms. In 2010 alone, hundreds of short range rockets passed through tunnels into Gaza, as did between 20 and 40 long-range rockets, about 1,000 mortar shells and several tons of high quality TNT, according to Shin Bet estimates. The reopening of the Rafah crossing to pedestrians is unlikely to drastically exacerbate that dire reality.

Meanwhile, the closure at both ends of the Strip had enabled Hamas to claim that Gaza’s citizens were suffering a humanitarian crisis, and led to controversies and clashes with “human rights” flotillas on the open seas – with particularly horrendous consequences in the case of the Mavi Marmara exactly a year ago. Now, one end of the Strip is more open, and the Gaza “prison” claims are more manifestly untenable.
Israel has already indicated a willingness to consider allowing credible international forces to inspect any future such flotillas. Better that Israel’s navy patrol Gaza’s shores as it does Lebanon’s and stops suspicious vessels such as the MV Francop – found in November 2009 to be carrying arms destined for Hezbollah.
This was not its aim, but the opening of the Rafah crossing removes any last justification for such flotillas. There was never a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and now its populace is no longer being denied access to the rest of the world either.