The Rafah Crossing + the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access

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”.

Continue reading The Rafah Crossing + the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access

Funeral service for Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza City today, burial to be in Italy

The Hamas Ministry of Interior in the Gaza Strip — which has arrested four people accused of involvement in the brutal death of Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni and which has published the photos of three more men who are wanted for the murder — has announced that the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt will be open today for those wanting to travel … to perform the Umrah (or minor) pilgrimage in Mecca.

However, Vittorio Arrigoni’s body will be transported from the same Rafah crossing at 2pm today, after a funeral service at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City at 1pm. The body will then be flown from Egypt to Italy, where it will be buried in his family’s cemetary, according to reports on Twitter.

One Tweet, from @LilianeKhalil, adds this report: “Many of #Vittorio’s friends have arrived in #Gaza for the funeral, others expected to arrive in the morning. (Source: #Hamas)”…

Most of these friends will probably also arrive via Rafah (rather than via Israel’s Erez crossing)

There is considerable taunting today — by Twitter accounts clearly run by Israelis — of anyone Tweeting about Vittorio…

Here is a video now posted on Youtube, which has Vittorio’s favorite Palestinian song, Onadikum, as its soundtrack. It begins with doctors in Shifa Hospital preparing Vittorio’s death certificate…

And, here is a video made today before and during the funeral service in Gaza:

Untitled from Mohammed Al Majdalawi on Vimeo.

Egypt opens Rafah crossing into Gaza

The announcement was made from Egypt as the Arab League met to discuss yesterday’s Israeli attack at sea on the Freedom Flotilla: the crossing into Gaza via Rafah would now be opened.

Egypt, with significant American material and technical assistance, has been building a steel wall that extends many meters underground, to prevent smuggling from the non-stop tunnels that extend the length of the Egyptian-Gazan border.

The Rafah crossing actually functioned only briefly. Israel unilaterally “disengaged” from Gaza in September 2005. Condoleezza Rice negotiated overnight on her birthday, 15 November 2005, to get Israel’s agreement on the modalities of getting goods and people into and out of the Gaza Strip.

The deal involved (1) real-time but remote control Israeli surveillance via video hookup from Kerem Shalom of (2) European Union monitors (based in the Israeli beachy-front city of Ashkelon) supervising (3) Palestinian Authority personnel processing all persons entering and exiting the Gaza Strip via Rafah.

Then, in January 2006, Hamas won a surprise victory in Palestinian Legislative Council elections — and the rest is actually not history, but still on-going.

Fatah was furious, and refused to join in a coalition government. The subsequent Hamas-led government was boycotted by Israel and the Quartet and the entire donor community. Palestinian Authority personnel, including security forces, could not be paid their salaries for over a year. Then, a short-lived Saudi-negotiated reconciliation produced a “National Unity” government that took office in March 2007. It was disbanded by the Palestinian Authority’s elected President Mahmoud Abbas in mid-June 2007, after a violent and dramatic Hamas rout of Fatah/Palestinian Preventive Security forces in the Gaza strip. Since then, Hamas runs the “de facto” governing administration in Gaza, while President Abbas, based in Ramallah, presides in the West Bank.

Israel has progressively tightened its squeeze on Gaza. At the same time, there are big problems between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas that have only exacerbated the squeeze.

And, Egyptian-brokered reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas have languished (at the moment, they appear to be taking place only Fatah and West Bank members of Hamas).

The opening of the crossings in and out of Gaza — including Rafah — is the carrot and the stick of this piece of political theater.

In January 2008, after tightened Israeli sanctions restricted fuel to the point that Gaza’s only power plant was forced to shut down, leaving Gaza City and more than half a million persons completely without electricity, Gazans (with the active assistance of Hamas) pulled down an Egyptian-built above-ground wall. Popular sympathy for their plight caused the Egyptian government to open the Rafah crossing, and Gazans streamed into Egypt to go shopping for a few days, before returning to their families and homes in the Gaza Strip. Then, after considerable Israeli pressure, the Rafah crossing was closed. Since then, it is only open intermittently, on short notice, and according to no regular schedule.

Today, as part of a wave of reaction to the Israeli raid at sea of the Freedom Flotilla headed to Gaza, the Rafah crossing was declared open again.

How long will it stay open this time?

The Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm today reported that the opening of Rafah crossing is only temporary: “The governor of northern Sinai, Murad Muwafi, says President Hosni Mubarak ordered the opening of the border crossing to Gaza in the town of Rafah for several days. Muwafi says the opening of the crossing — which Egypt sealed after Gaza was taken over by Hamas militants in 2007 — is an effort to ‘alleviate the suffering of our Palestinian brothers after the Israeli attack’ on the flotilla. This was posted

After a reported ten hours of deliberations on Monday to Tuesday, at Turkey’s request, the UN Security Council agreed on a statement which said, among other things, that “The Security Council deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force during the Israeli military operation in international waters against the convoy sailing to Gaza. The Council, in this context, condemns those acts which resulted in the loss of at least 10 civilians and many wounded, and expresses its condolences to their families. The Security Council requests the immediate release of the ships as well as the civilians held by Israel. The council urges Israel to permit full consular access, to allow the countries concerned to retrieve their deceased and wounded immediately, and to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance from the convoy to its destination … The Security Council stresses that the situation in Gaza is not sustainable. The Council re-emphasises the importance of the full implementation of Resolutions 1850 and 1860 [n.b., both of these UN Security Council resolutions say that the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authorurity is the legitimate power in Gaza]. In that context, it reiterates its grave concern at the humanitarian situation in Gaza and stresses the need for sustained and regular flow of goods and people to Gaza as well as unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian assistance throughout Gaza…” Turkey is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Turkey is also a long-standing member of NATO, and at a meeting in Brussels today the 28 nations in the organization called Tuesday for a “prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation”, and “Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen demanded the immediate release of the detained civilians and ships held by Israel”. The Jerusalem Post reported this news, but noted that Turkey “did not demand that the alliance take collective action against Israel, said a diplomat who attended the talks”. The JPost report is posted here.

And, one of Israel’s most respected authors, David Grossman, wrote today “How insecure, confused and panicky a country must be, to act as Israel acted! With a combination of excessive military force, and a fatal failure to anticipate the intensity of the reaction of those aboard the ship, it killed and wounded civilians, and did so – as if it were a band of pirates – outside its territorial waters. This assessment does not imply agreement with the motives, overt or hidden, and often malicious, of some participants in the Gaza flotilla. Not all its people are peace-loving humanitarians, and the declarations of some of them regarding the destruction of the state of Israel are criminal. But these facts are simply not relevant at the moment: such opinions do not deserve the death penalty. Israel’s actions are but the natural continuation of the shameful, ongoing closure of Gaza, which in turn is the perpetuation of the heavy-handed and condescending approach of the Israeli government, which is prepared to embitter the lives of a million and a half innocent people in the Gaza Strip, in order to obtain the release of one imprisoned soldier, precious and beloved though he may be; and this closure is the all-too-natural consequence of a clumsy and calcified policy, which again and again resorts by default to the use of massive and exaggerated force, at every decisive juncture, where wisdom and sensitivity and creative thinking are called for instead … The closure of Gaza has failed. It has failed for four years now. What this means is that it is not merely immoral, but also impractical, and indeed worsens the entire situation, as we are reminded at this very hour, and also harms the vital interests of Israel. The crimes of the leaders of Hamas, who have held the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit captive for four years without once allowing the Red Cross to visit him, and who fired thousands of rockets from the Gaza Strip at Israeli towns and villages, are acts that must be firmly dealt with, utilising the various legal means available to a sovereign state. The ongoing siege of a civilian population is not one of them. I would like to believe that the shock of Monday’s frantic actions will lead to a re-evaluation of the whole idea of the closure, at last freeing the Palestinians from their suffering, and cleansing Israel of its moral stain. But our experience in this tragic region teaches that the opposite will occur: the mechanisms of violent response, the cycles of vengeance and hatred, Monday began a new round, whose magnitude cannot yet be foreseen. Above all, this insane operation shows how far Israel has declined. There is no need to overstate this claim. Anyone with eyes to see understands and feels it”. This comment was posted here.