Egypt formally reopened the Rafah crossing today.
Journalists on the scene report that the numbers of Palestinians crossing were fewer than anticipated — apparently partly because of suspicions based on long experience that things might not work out as expected, and partly because of a shortage of money among many in Gaza.
It was one of the top stories on the international agenda today.
The Egyptian decision to reopen the Rafah Crossing appears to be unilateral – though carried out after considerable behind-the-scenes consultations.
By all indications negotiations are still continuing.
Israeli and Palestinian analysts suggest that the Egyptian move appears to be a reward to Hamas in exchange for the essential concessions and compromise that allowed agreement on reconciliation between it and Fatah, the two largest Palestinian movements who have been feuding as each controls a different part of the occupied Palestinian territory.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said in Washington last week with surprising equanimity that the American government was confident that Egypt could handle the security situation at Rafah…
The earlier regime at the Rafah crossing was established in the wake of Israel’s unilateral 2005 “disengagement” from Gaza.
The 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access which technically prevailed at the Rafah border crossing between Rafah and Egypt until today was negotiated over several months with considerable difficulty, and was only be brought to conclusion after the personal intervention of then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an all-night marathon session, on her birthday, 15 November. It was intended to govern Israel’s immediate relationship to Gaza – which Israel argued was no longer occupied.
Within ten days, the EU managed to put together and deploy the EUBAM border-monitoring mission, and a liaison Office was set up, where EU observers worked together with Israeli and Palestinian Authority personnel.
In addition, Israeli security officials monitored the situation at Rafah in real time by live transmission of video surveillance, and by on-line computer transmissions of all the ID card numbers of the people who were crossing in either direction, Berger said.
One aspect of the Agreement that was constantly violated was the provision that “the passages will operate continuously”.
But, as it happened, the Agreement on Movement and Access was barely implemented, and for a very limited time only.
If Israel told the EUBAM observers to stay home, for example, for security reasons, the Rafah crossing would have to be closed.
The EU Representative to the Palestinian Authority, Christian Berger, explained in an interview in his office in East Jerusalem yesterday that it was originally supposed to cover both people and goods: “the original Agreement of 2005 foresaw that exports could take place right away, and if I remember one truck or two trucks were actually exported in December 2005 to Cairo. If I’m not mistaken, it was children’s toys. And then, nothing much happened. Imports were a different story: imports from the beginning had to come via Kerem Shalom [the Agreement did forsee capacity-building for handling imports direct at Rafah, after a period of one year] … However, during the period of one year, it was foreseen that with the help of the European Union but also with the help of the Israeli customs officials, Palestinian officials would be trained so they could [eventually] handle the imports themselves directly from Egypt. And at the end of that one-year period, an assessment would have been done, to find out whether the capacity was there for handling the imports. There was also a reference in the agreement for cars to be checked – traffic of private cars. Both things never happened – not at all, no. So, imports didn’t happen, and the training didn’t happen, and also the training and the capacity-building for cars didn’t happen”.
Egypt’s former president Husni Mubarak reportedly insisted that PA personnel appointed from Ramallah had to be present at the Rafah crossing. So, after the Hamas rout of Fatah/Palestinian Preventive Security in mid-June 2007, the Rafah crossing was closed until Hamas helped pull down a security wall in January 2008, when progressively-tightened sanctions in Gaza administered by the Israeli military without any civilian oversight began to bite hard.
Following the decision announced by Egypt’s new Foreign Minister Nabil al-Araby to reopen the Rafah crossing, the Israeli Government has officially played it cool, various officials expressed various degrees of personal concern.
Though Egypt accepted various roles in the previous Rafah crossing regime, it was not a party to the November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access that was only actually applied very briefly at the Rafah between Gaza and Egypt.
The agreement is between Israel and the local Palestinian Authority only. [It is the only agreement of this kind – all of the Oslo Accords are between Israel and the overarching Palestinian Liberation Organization.]
The 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access was hard-won, and the tone is telling: for example, it briskly clarifies that a Palestinian priority in Gaza, construction of a long-planned deep-sea port, would be permitted: “Construction of a seaport can commence. The GoI [Government of Israel] will undertake to assure donors that it will not interfere with operation of the port”.
But, there was no decision reached on the re-opening of Gaza’s international airport. The Agreement only said that “The parties agree on the importance of the airport. Discussions will continue on the issues of security arrangements, construction, and operation”.
The same thing applied to the bad situation in the West Bank: the U.S. and Israel would supposed to work out, separately, “an agreed list of obstacles to movement [of people and goods in the West Bank] and develop a plan to reduce them to the maximum extent possible by December 31 ”.
The Agreement laid down a short timetable for the establishment of transportation links between Gaza and the West Bank (by December 15 for buses to carry people, and by January 15 for truck convoys to move goods). This, too, did not happen.
The Agreement was the product of months of negotiations that seemed primarily intended to address Israel’s security concerns after Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza completed – without coordination with the Palestinian side, who dropped out of coordination meetings after they said they were only being given instructions — by mid-September 2005.
It was intended to govern Israel’s immediate relationship to Gaza – which Israel argued was no longer occupied — in the aftermath of Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” in mid-September 2005.
While a Quartet representative had struggled for months to reach agreement, it took an all-nighter with the personal intervention of the then-U.S. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice (on her birthday, 15 November, when she was visiting the region) to finalize the terms.
Any unresolved problems were to be dealt with by the U.S. Security Coordinator [then Lt. Gen Keith Dayton], and the Quartet representative was also supposed to do what he could.
The agreed Third Party was the European Union.
The EU Representative to the Palestinian Authority, Christian Berger, said in an interview in his office on Friday that “the agreement says that if there is a difference of opinion on who should cross, there should be negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israeli side, and ultimately the Palestinians would then decide if a person could cross or not”.
Berger said that it was the PA — and not the EU — who repaved and marked what was, after previous facilities were destroyed in Hamas-Fatah fighting in June 2007 and subsequently by Israeli incursions, a long dirt road that was the only access for most of the limited number of people allowed to travel through the Israeli Erez Crossing in the northern area of the Gaza Strip.
“They did it themselves, using a Palestinian construction firm from Gaza – in the course of the last year”, he said.
And, the EU Representative reported, the PA has also been working at Kerem Shalom, “preparing the Palestinian side of Kerem Shalom for the increased amount of goods coming through, and they paved also the road between Kerem Shalom and Rafah, for the trucks to come out”.
He said that the EU is prepared to help with this work at Kerem Shalom. “We’re helping the Palestinian Authority, we’re preparing a study, a feasibility study for increasing the capacity of Kerem Shalom, or rather its Palestinian side, Kerem Abu Salem. And, because of the increased traffic now, we will help the Palestinians improve the road network leading away from Kerem Shalom/Kerem Abu Salem. But, that hasn’t happened yet. So, we have not contributed so far to any upgrading of any of the crossing points, except for what we did in 2005, when Rafah was reopened”.
Berger said that, unlike most other donors, the EU has already spent the reconstruction money it promised in 2009 in Taba, after Israel’s devastating Operation Cast Lead, as promised, on Gaza. “We spend a lot of money. I mean, half of our budget, a lot of money, ends up in Gaza. It’s not widely known, but we still pay salaries, we pay for vulnerable families, we used to pay for a long time for the Power Plant. We have just now, a year ago, we launched a private-sector recovery program which is now going through the next phase. We do a lot of programs in Gaza, like income generation – we do this with UNRWA. So there is a substantial part of our support to the PA actually ending up in Gaza”.