No Entry (Extract)

The resealing of the Rafah border has opened a Pandora's box of dilemmas for Egypt, Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority - and left Gazans more disgruntled than ever

24gaza (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract of article in Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The shopping spree is over and the siege has resumed. After a wave of Gaza humanity spilled over into Egypt when Hamas explosives breached the border wall in late January, Egypt erected a new barbed wire barrier that stemmed the tide. After an intoxicating but brief taste of freedom and shopping, Gazans - once again unable to cross into Egypt - were in mid-February once again facing shortages of fuel, cement, milk, flour and other basic commodities. While the border was still open, Munir e-Dweik, a Gaza taxi driver, drove to Sinai to stock up on 200 liters of fuel. "I went to buy diesel to keep in reserve. I don't want to be caught without gas," he explains by phone. He was one of the hundreds of thousands who took advantage of the situation. Israeli security sources claim that mixed among the masses were militants who brought in large quantities of weaponry. The border crossing may be closed, but not the Pandora's box of dilemmas it opened regarding the manner in which the Egyptians should run the Gazan border at Rafah. The geopolitical knot has implications for Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian ties, and is yet another source of tension in the constant tug of war between the fundamentalist Islamic Hamas and the Palestinian Authority run by the secular Fatah movement, which currently has no say at all in Gaza. Despite Egyptian threats to "smash the kneecaps" of Palestinians who attempt to cross into Egypt, it's not clear how long Gazans, cut off by an Israeli economic siege, will resist the temptation to try again. In a high-pressure situation, Egypt served briefly as a safety valve. Meanwhile, the Israel security authorities were girding up for potential scenarios in which the crossings into Israel would be flooded with unarmed civilians trying to break through. "People went out to breathe some fresh air," says Dweik who is now hosting a sister from Cairo, who was stranded in Gaza after the resealing of the border. "We are living in a big prison. We're like chickens in a coop. People are praying for an agreement between Hamas and Fatah that will lead to a reopening of the border" and the eventual lifting of the siege. Hamas won a public relations victory when it destroyed the wall in January, asserting its dominance in Gaza for the first time since taking control of the strip last June. Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found a 6 percent increase in Hamas's popularity between the end of December and the end of January. "The increase reflects public appreciation, particularly in the Gaza Strip, of Hamas's role in forcing open the borders of the Gaza Strip with Egypt," Shikaki wrote. The PA, which was given responsibility for the Palestinian side of all Gaza's crossings into Israel and Egypt under the U.S.-mediated Agreement on Movement and Access with Israel of 2005, would like to take control of the borders, but the crisis has only underlined its powerlessness. Trying to mediate between the PA and Hamas is Egypt, which reportedly would like to return to the original agreement, but realizes that Hamas is in a position to veto any accord. The issue is a headache for Egypt since it has undermined security in Sinai, bolstered domestic Islamist opposition, and strained relations with Israel. The border crisis is symbolic of the broader failure of the U.S., Israel and their moderate Arab allies to contain Hamas, explains Samih Shabeeb, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "There are new facts on the ground. The strength of Hamas is something that no one can ignore," he says. "This represents the core problem of the Middle East." Ever since the Islamic militants overran Gaza last June, the crossings have been a major sore spot. Israel has kept its border with Gaza shut, making exceptions only for humanitarian supplies and a trickle of commercial goods. Prior to the breaching of the border, the Rafah crossing had been closed since Hamas's takeover. According to the 2005 agreement, the border is supposed to be operated by the PA under the supervision of a team of European Union monitors. Though Israelis cannot be physically present at the crossing, they are allowed to observe the pedestrian transit through a closed circuit video feed and have used that provision as a basis to veto the border's opening. That's the sort of interference that Hamas can't accept. "We need a free Palestinian-Egyptian border without Israeli intervention," says Ayman Daragmeh, a Hamas legislator from the West Bank. Hamas also opposes the return of the EU monitors, accusing them of representing Israeli interests. If the bogged-down talks produce an accord between the PA, Egypt and Hamas, it would mark a signal diplomatic recognition of Hamas from a leading Arab country and possibly pave the way for a reconciliation between Hamas and PA President Mahmud Abbas's Fatah Party. But Daragmeh insists that Hamas, and not Fatah, is in the driver's seat. "Nobody at this point can bypass Hamas. The geographic and political contours have changed," says Daragmeh. "No one can impose anything unilaterally on Gaza." Extract of article in Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.