Q&A: The Rafah border breach

Is Egypt winning Arab praise at the cost of angering the US and Israel?

    Palestinians walk atop the remains of Gaza's border wall with Egypt [AFP]

    On January 22, Egypt, a close ally of the US, and bound by a peace treaty with Israel, unilaterally opened the Rafah border crossing, defying both countries, and effectively breaking an Israeli siege of the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

    We answer here some of the questions that arise from the issue:

    Why did Cairo decide to let Palestinians enter Egypt from Gaza?

    Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president, said he had ordered his troops to allow Palestinians to cross into Egypt from the Gaza Strip because they were starving.

    Mubarak said that when the Palestinians forced their way through, he told his men to let them in, to buy food before escorting them out.

    But humanitarian aid may not be the sole reason for Egypt to open the Rafah border point without a prior consultation with Israel or the European monitors, who according to agreements, are supposed to be present at the crossing.

    To begin with, Egypt has always been keen to control it eastern borders and to maintain good ties with the powers that rule Gaza. Cairo has been walking a tight rope ever since the Hamas took over of Gaza, trying to balance its recognition of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah while maintaining bridges with the Islamic Resistance in the strip.

    Is Cairo jeopardising its relations with the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and the US by unilaterally opening the Rafah crossing point?

    Egypt has been ill at ease with the PA's lack of co-ordination with Cairo regarding official contacts and negotiations with Israel and the US.

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    Therefore, its decision to open the borders is also a message to the PA in Ramallah that has been unable to help besieged Gaza.

    Cairo has always maintained influence on and affinity with the Gaza Strip, which was under its rule until the 1967 war. By extending help to Gaza, it wants to reassert its historical influence and role in the strip.

    The Egyptian decision is also seen as a response to recent accusations by Israel that Cairo has failed in tightening its borders, thus allowing smuggling of arms and money to the Hamas movement. The accusations, endorsed by the pro-Israeli–lobby in Washington, had prompted the US congress to withhold $100m in aid until the border "problems" and other issues are sorted out.

    Cairo, it seems, is drawing the line: It cannot afford to leave it to the US and Israel to decide the fate of such an important geographically close neighbour as the Gaza Strip. Cairo has effectively declared that the fate of Gaza is part of its strategic interests and will not be left to Israel to decide.

    Furthermore, the move could also help Cairo buttress repeated demands, rejected by Israel and the US, to let it deploy more troops on the eastern border.

    Is there an agreement between Hamas and the Egyptian government over opening the crossing?

    A senior Hamas official said there was no prior agreement with Egypt. He said that it was a "unilateral move" in response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

    But the situation on the ground suggests that there is at least an understanding between the Egyptian government and the Hamas leadership. Such an understanding is crucial to ensure a smooth flow of movement. Journalists at the border reported that they, and the Gazans crossing, were being checked by both Egyptian and the Hamas security forces. There is also an understanding to keep the Egyptian army away to prevent possible clashes with people crossing the border.

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    Previously, and according to the agreements signed with Israel, only Fatah–led PA security forces, were authorised to patrol the borders along with European Union monitors.

    Israel has traditionally reserved the right to unilaterally open and close the crossings while Egypt had always co-ordinated with Tel Aviv. However, Cairo did take the bold move of opening the crossing, despite Israeli objections, to allow Palestinians returning from Hajj to go to their homes in Gaza.

    The fact that Egypt defied US and Israeli pressures, and co-ordinated with Hamas, may signal a turning point: The move has recognised Hamas as the de facto ruler of Gaza.

    For how long will the border continue to be open?

    It appears that Egypt, pressures not withstanding, will keep the border open, allowing Gazans to purchase direly needed supplies, until Israel eases the siege. The point is to allow them to purchase supplies and return to the strip. Gazans are not allowed beyond the border town of Al Arish and can stay only for a day or two. Exceptions are made for those seeking medical help to travel beyond Al Arish and stay longer under strict Egyptian control.

    Cairo's move is already creating more international pressure on Israel to lift or at least ease the blockade. A senior Hamas official said that the PA is being contacted in Ramallah to co-ordinate Palestinian control of the crossing. Israel is yet to agree to a resumption of PA security presence at the Rafah crossing. The Israeli media reported that the government holds reservations over the PA's ability to control "Hamas attempts to channel money and arms into the Gaza Strip".

    For how long has the siege been in place?

    Israel has maintained control of movement in and out of the Gaza Strip, even after its troops withdrew in 2005. It had frequently imposed restrictions, and even closures, on the strip over the years. However, Israel imposed a severe siege after  Hamas won the parliamentary elections in January, 2006 and tightened it further following the Hamas military take over of the strip in June, 2007. It consequently declared Gaza an "enemy entity".

    On January 18, Israel ordered a total shut down on the strip, preventing movements of civilians, including patients and medical supplies. It escalated its measures on January 20 when it cut off fuel. Such procedures led to the shutdown of the sole power plant in the strip two days ago. Faced with international pressure and condemnation, Israel has now allowed a limited supply of fuel into Gaza.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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