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.