Why reopening Egypt-Gaza Rafah crossing is crucial amid Israeli bombing

Egypt has said Palestinians need to remain on their own land – but it is trying to facilitate humanitarian aid.

A picture taken on October 10, 2023, shows the closed gates of the Rafah border crossing from Gaza to Egypt after repeated Israeli air attacks [Said Khatib/AFP]

As the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip continues, 2.3 million Palestinians remain trapped as Israel announced a total blockade of the enclave – no water, no fuel and no electricity – in the wake of Hamas’s deadly attack on October 7.

Efforts to open the Rafah crossing have so far not yielded any results, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry saying Israel has yet to allow the opening of the crossing, which connects Gaza to Egypt. He added that Cairo aimed to keep the crossing operational.

Egypt is expected to deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance to beleaguered Palestinians in the enclave but has rejected proposals to accept Gaza Palestinians into its borders.

So, what is the crossing that Egypt controls, how is Egypt tied to Gaza amid the continuing conflict and what happens next?

What is the Rafah crossing?

About a million Palestinians have already been displaced as a result of intense Israeli bombing, and an Israeli order to evacuate northern Gaza in preparation for an apparent ground offensive.

Tens of thousands of people have been sheltering in UN schools while the medical situation is at breaking point.

The Rafah crossing, located in the southern part of Gaza bordering Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, is the only way to cross into Egypt and serves as a vital link between Gaza and the rest of the world.

INTERACTIVE - What is the Rafah crossing map-1697466070
(Al Jazeera)

Both Israel and Egypt enforce strict control over the passage of people and goods as part of an earlier blockade imposed in 2007 after Hamas came to power.

The crossing is increasingly coming up in negotiations between different parties as they try to navigate the war that erupted on October 7 when Hamas fighters entered Israel and began launching rockets, killing at least 1,400 people so far. Israel has since killed at least 2,700 Palestinians in a relentless bombing campaign in the past eight days.


Rafah was closed after the start of the conflict, as Israel repeatedly bombed it. Egypt claims its own side of the crossing remains operational, but the Israeli air strikes have significantly damaged infrastructure on the Palestinian side.

Hundreds of tonnes of aid from NGOs and several countries were waiting on trucks in the nearby Egyptian town of El Arish on Monday for permission to enter Gaza, two sources there and a witness told Reuters.

Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and Gaza

The Sinai peninsula, which also borders Israel, is located between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Red Sea to the south. As the only part of Egypt to be located in Asia, it acts as a land bridge between Asia and Africa.

The Sinai was controlled by the Ottoman Empire for centuries until the 19th century, subsequently falling into the hands of the British colonial power, which maintained control till the mid-20th century.

Sinai was captured by Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War with Arab states in 1967. Israel returned Sinai to Egypt after the Camp David Accords brokered by the United States. Egypt became the first Arab nation to officially recognise Israel as part of the peace deals. Israel fully withdrew from the Sinai peninsula by 1982.

The Gaza Strip, which was under Egyptian control from 1948 to 1967, came under Israeli occupation. Israel would maintain its hold over Gaza for about 40 years before withdrawing under international pressure in 2005.

What about aid and refugees?

Hundreds of tonnes of aid on more than 100 trucks has arrived in Sinai from countries including Jordan and Turkey, with Egypt opening up its airport in El Arish to accommodate them.

The trucks are lined up in the northern parts of the peninsula close to Gaza and are ready to enter through the Rafah crossing once an agreement is reached to open it.

But despite visits by top United States and European officials to Egypt, Israel has rejected safe passage for the aid trucks, so the crossing remains closed.

That has meant that foreigners and dual-national Palestinians trapped in the blockaded enclave have also been unable to cross into Egypt, pending an agreement.

The situation is different for Palestinians without any other nationalities, as it appears Egypt does not plan to allow them entry based on national security considerations.

Egypt, which hosts about nine million migrants already from Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere, and on top of that is facing an economic crisis, is reluctant to simply open the Rafah crossing to hundreds of thousands of more refugees.

That is especially true since historically, displaced Palestinians have been largely unable to return to their homes. Most of Gaza’s population are refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when they were ethnically cleansed from their homes which now form part of Israel.

Both Egypt and Jordan have said Palestinians need to remain in their homeland to be able to achieve their goal of having a Palestinian state.

Source: Al Jazeera