Analysis: Will Gaza borders be opened for business?

PA concerned improperly opening Rafah crossing to goods could further split between Gaza, W. Bank.

Rafah crossing 370 (photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)
Rafah crossing 370
(photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)
After six years of closures on the Gaza Strip, the US this week helped broker an understanding by which Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians may finally tackle the issue of the crossings.
The matter evokes much anti-Israel rhetoric.
But for Palestinian in the Strip, the key crossing is Rafah, on the border with Egypt.
Egypt closed Rafah in 2006, although there has been intermittent pedestrian traffic since.
Rafah was fully open to pedestrians only in 2010. Cairo has consistently refused Palestinian demands to expand use of the crossing to allow for the flow of goods, fearing that creating a permanent trade passage wound be the first step toward placing the Gaza Strip fully under its auspices.
The Palestinian Authority, which publicly calls for Rafah to be re-opened, notes that the devil is in the details. In private discussions it has expressed concern that improperly opening Rafah to goods could further split Gaza from the West Bank and make it difficult to reunite the two areas into one state. To keep the integrity of its future state intact, the PA wants the Rafah crossing to be under its auspices and within the same customs envelope as the West Bank rather than under Egypt’s.
Israeli security officials say the Egyptian have finally dropped their objections. They believe that if the Gaza- Israel cease-fire holds, Cairo may allow goods to enter the Strip through Rafah, in additional to through Israel.
The officials added that a monitoring system would need to be set up to ensure that weapons were not smuggled into Gaza.
The absence of a channel for goods between Gaza and Egypt, combined with Israeli restrictions on its border crossings with the Strip, has led to the creation of a tunnel system through which goods are smuggled in from Sinai.
It is through these tunnels that rockets, including from Iran, and the infrastructure to launch them, flow.
According to Gisha — Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, more than 47 percent of Gaza’s civilian imports come through these tunnels.
This translates, Gisha said, to 4,100 truckloads per month, compared with 4,700 truckloads that heads into Gaza from Israel.
Most of Gaza’s fuel is also piped in through the tunnels, Gisha said.
The organization has argued that any new arrangement on the Rafah crossing should keep Gaza’s trade focused on the West Bank and Israel and within the Israeli customs envelope.
In the past, when the Gaza passages into Israel were fully open, it said, 85 percent of the Strip’s trade was with the West Bank and Israel.
According to Gisha, Israel is a more attractive market for Gaza than Egypt, Prices are lower in Egypt, and it would be difficult for Gazan products to be competitive in the giant neighbor to the west.
Transport times from Gaza through Egypt are also longer, and thus it would be more expensive to move the goods, the Tel Aviv-based NGO said.
Gisha called on Israel to take this opportunity to lift its ban on the passage of goods and people from Gaza to the West Bank and to allow construction material for the private sector into Gaza. At present, Israel limits the flow of construction materials into the Strip, to prevent them being used for military purposes.
Each month, according to Gisha, 3,600 truckloads of construction material enter Gaza through the smuggling tunnels, compared to 1,100 that comes in through Israel.
When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, the US brokered the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access under which goods and people were to travel from Gaza into Israel and Egypt, under the watchful eye of Israeli and European Union monitors.
But the agreement, which placed all the crossings into Gaza under the control of the Fatah-dominated PA, held in full only until Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in June 2006.
It broke down altogether in June 2007, when Hamas drove Fatah out of Gaza, including its Presidential Guard that controlled the borders and the EU monitors who observed them.
The international community shied away from creating any new system, because it would mean abrogating the 2005 agreement, and because it was uncertain what was happening with Hamas.
The issue was made more complicated by the fact that there are no formal relations between Israel and Hamas.
Until 2007, the PA had served as an intermediary between those two deadly enemies.
Since then, Israel, with the help of the PA, international organizations and technocrats in Gaza, has been in charge of two passageways from Israel into Gaza; one for goods at the Kerem Shalom crossing to the southern Strip, and one for pedestrians through the Erez crossing in the north.
On Thursday, a day after the cease-fire was announced, expectations were high in Gaza that the borders would suddenly be totally open.
In reality, however, for security reasons the military blockade will remain in place, as will restrictions on pedestrian movement between Gaza and the West Bank.
What could happen is that a new formal arrangement, one that would be carefully monitored, could be put in place to handle the passage of goods and people in and out of the Strip.
In the best of circumstances, these new arrangements could lift any remaining ban on products, for example construction material, and help restore normal economic life to Gaza.