Rafah deal underlines Cairo’s warming ties with Hamas

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman says opening of border crossing meant to “ease the suffering of Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.”

Fatah Hamas press conference 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)
Fatah Hamas press conference 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)
Ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had a strained relationship with the Hamas government in Gaza, and feared the spread of its influence and activities in his country. As a result he consistently refused to formally open the Rafah crossing on the Sinai-Gaza border – which was shut down after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 – despite complaints about Gazans’ suffering under the Israeli security blockade.
The new Egyptian government, however, wants to improve relations with Hamas, as evidenced by its brokering of this month’s Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal.
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As of Saturday, therefore, the border crossing will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Fridays and official holidays, Egypt’s state MENA News Agency announced on Thursday. Palestinian men aged 18 to 40 will need visas to cross. Older men, boys and females of all ages will be able to travel without one.
Both Hamas and Fatah welcomed the decision.
“This is an important move for the entry and exit of Palestinian citizens, and we hope it will be developed to enable the Rafah crossing to handle goods in the future,” Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nono told Al-Jazeera television.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Menha Bakhoum said the move was intended to “ease the suffering of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.”
Her government, Barkoum said, had not consulted any foreign country over the decision, which was taken in principle before the Fatah-Hamas unity deal was reached. “This is a sovereign Egyptian decision,” she said.
A Palestinian Authority official in Ramallah said the decision to reopen the crossing was taken in coordination with the PA leadership in the West Bank.
The crossing, which once sat on what was the Israeli-Egyptian border, was built in 1979 and run by Israel and Egypt until Israel withdrew from Gaza during the disengagement in the summer of 2005.
The border was closed from September 11 to November 24 of that year. It reopened on November 25, under the auspices of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access signed between Israel and the PA, which monitored activity at the Rafah crossing as well as at the crossings from Gaza into Israel.
Under that agreement PA employees manned the border at Rafah together with Egyptians. A joint Israeli-Palestinian team helped supervise crossing activity from a location at Kerem Shalom through camera surveillance, to ensure that no weapons were smuggled in and that no terrorists entered Gaza. The European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) also sat with that joint team at Kerem Shalom to help monitor crossing activity.
According to EUBAM, 280,000 pedestrians, an average of 1,500 people a day, traveled through the crossing from November 25, 2005, until June 25, 2006, the day that Hamas ambushed Gilad Schalit’s border patrol and kidnapped him.
Israel then suspended activity at Rafah, which according to the terms of the agreement on movement and access was only allowed to continue with Israeli approval.
It was open for only 85 days in the next year, during which time 170,000 people crossed, for an average of 2,000 a day.
The border was shut down altogether on June 9, 2007, after the Hamas coup. But goods and weapons have been smuggled into Gaza in the past four years through a series of tunnels built under the border with Sinai.
In January 2008, Hamas blew up parts of the Egyptian border wall near the crossing and hundreds of thousands of Gazans poured into Egypt to buy goods and supplies.
After that the Mubarak government intermittently opened the crossing for humanitarian cases and offered limited access for journalists, diplomats, foreign passport holders and other special requests. In June 2010, it opened the border on a regular basis for these same limited categories.
Rafah was closed again during the Egyptian protests in January and February 2011. After that it reopened on a limited basis.
Reuters contributed to this report.