What’s Really Going On at Rafah?

Al-Shabaka Commentary

When it comes to understanding the complicated realities of the Gaza Strip, the Rafah Crossing ranks among the greatest sources of confusion: Many people know it is the main gateway in and out of the blockaded Palestinian territory, and that it is frequently closed. But other details are fuzzy. Many are likely unaware that even when the crossing is supposedly “open”, it is still closed to large segments of the population – both the Palestinian residents of Gaza and others.

The government of the newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi and Hamas leaders were scheduled to meet mid-September to discuss border security and easing of passage through the Rafah Crossing, according to press reports. The outcome remains to be seen, but so far successive Egyptian governments have adopted the Israeli principles governing the Crossing, even though Israel itself no longer manages it. Simply put, those principles are that, only Gaza Palestinians listed in the Israeli-controlled population registry are permitted to use the crossing. Visitors and non-resident Palestinians – even Palestinians from the West Bank – are still forbidden from entering Gaza, and this includes the spouses of resident Palestinians. Moreover, most young males face great difficulty in passing in or out and are often denied permission outright by Egyptian authorities.

Last month, the Crossing made the headlines again after a series of attacks by masked gunmen on military checkpoints in the Sinai. The Egyptian government closed Rafah indefinitely, much to the dismay of the Gaza Palestinians, who saw no reason for the closure and had no hand in the attacks. The Egyptian move brought back chilling reminders of the policies of years past carried out by both Israel and the government of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak, when the crossing was explicitly closed (according to leaked policy documents at the time) as a punitive measure, a form of collective punishment on the civilian residents of Gaza.

The Mursi government eventually reversed its decision, after having stranded thousands of Palestinians on either side of the border – but it remains an open question how much influence Mursi wields regarding the border crossing, which is controlled by the Egyptian border patrol.

There was a time where Palestinian residents of Gaza could enter the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) through the border crossing from Jordan, and travel to Gaza through the Erez Crossing from Israel. This changed in the late 1990s, and Israel restricted Palestinian entry into Gaza to the Rafah Crossing except for limited and pre-approved cases. Israel manned the crossing with brutality and unpredictability, using it to screen potential informants, to deny entry to “wanted” Palestinians, and to pressure and punish the Palestinian population as a whole by closing the Crossing arbitrarily and abruptly.

In 2005, several months after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, the United States brokered a complicated deal that would allow for a gradual transition of power over the Rafah Crossing to the Palestinian Authority (a familiar refrain!). The deal required that passenger lists be pre-approved by Israel and for European monitors, known as the European Union Border Assistance Mission to Rafah, and Israeli video surveillance to act as proxies for the Israeli army, who ultimately retained control over the crossing.

The Agreement on Movement and Access, or AMA, as it came to be known, was signed in late November 2005 after months of closure, and was supposed to facilitate the movement of Palestinian people and goods in and out of Gaza. It also promised Palestinian control over the Rafah Crossing into Egypt by November of 2006. At the time, the Agreement was hailed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a breakthrough that would "give the Palestinian people freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives." However, according to a report released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs a year after the agreement was signed, Palestinians became worse off both in terms of their freedom of movement and overall economic situation.