Agreement over Rafah crossing stirs controversy in Gaza

Agreement over Rafah crossing stirs controversy in Gaza

5 min read
09 November, 2017
In-depth: Gazans do not want European observers reporting their movements to Israel, reports Rami Almeghari.
Rafah has been mostly closed in the past ten years, except during Morsi's presidency [NurPhoto]

In 2005, Israel disengaged unilaterally from the occupied Gaza Strip, pulling out troops and settlers from various regions of the coastal territory. It retained control over Gaza's border, airspace and coastline.

Upon disengagement, Israel made an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, the European Union and the US over the operation of the Egyptian-Palestinian Rafah crossing terminal to the south of Gaza.

Before the disengagement, Israel was in control of the crossing, with the Palestinian Authority's officials running the day-to-day entry and exit operations.

The operation agreement of 2005, however, included installing dozens of European officials right on the crossing, with surveillance cameras, and huge screens installed throughout the terminal.

The European monitors were assigned to observe movements and reporting regularly to the relevant officials, including Israel.

Two years later, the Islamist Hamas party, whose 2006 election victory sparked a backlash and boycott from Israel and the United States, took over the coastal enclave in internecine fighting and ousted the Fatah movement, which dominated the Palestinian Authority, from the Strip.

European monitors left the crossing following the violence, while Egyptian authorities closed down the terminal.

Since then, Hamas has remained in control of the closed border crossings, until last week, when a consensus government of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, officially took charge of Rafah crossing and other Gaza border crossings.

The new administration of the Rafah crossing stated last week that the 2005 operation agreement would be restored and that European monitors would return, 10 years after they left

The handover of the Rafah terminal and the other crossing points followed a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal, signed in Cairo.

The new administration of the Rafah crossing stated last week that the 2005 operation agreement would be restored and that European monitors would return, 10 years after they left.

European officials were reported to have toured southern Gaza, along with PA officials, apparently in preparation for the renewed mission.

But this week, the West Bank-based Palestinian prime minister, Rami Alhamdallah, was quoted as saying that his consensus government could not take full responsibility for the Gaza crossings, unless armed PA forces were deployed in Gaza.

So far, only a few dozen security officials have been deployed to the Rafah crossing and the Beit Hanoun crossing, also known as the Erez crossing, which is in the north of the Strip and is controlled by Israel.

Alhamdallah was also quoted as suggesting that his consensus government was looking forward to the results of a meeting between Egyptian officials and representatives of all Palestinian political factions, expected to take place by November 20.

Amid such developments, controversy has been mounting in Gaza over whether European monitors can be of use.

"I do believe that the presence of European monitors is not of any help, because the Rafah crossing terminal is Egyptian-Palestinian and could be run without the intervention by any third party," Maher Altabb'a, an economic expert in Gaza, told The New Arab.

"Regarding the operation agreement of 2005, this agreement should be implemented as one package, not only regarding the Rafah crossing terminal. The agreement stipulates that all other crossings including the Karni commercial crossing, Nahal Auz and the [guarantee of] safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank should be operating as well."

Altabb'a, speaking from his Gaza City office in the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, added that the operation agreement also states that the abandoned and Israel-battered Gaza International Airport, along with Gaza's sea port, should be also rebuilt.

"I believe that if the parties concerned make sure to run all those crossings and reconstruct the sea and air ports, this would leave a positive impact on the Gaza Strip's two million residents," he said.

Other Palestinians in Gaza, including Naji Albatta, a political analyst of Israeli affairs, agree that European monitors are not needed, arguing they would be assigned with monitoring the movement of Palestinians, in and out of the territory.

Rafah crossing terminal operated quite well in the time of deposed Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, who ordered the terminal to operate almost around the clock

"I myself was a witness to the inauguration ceremony of the Rafah crossing terminal, back in 2005. Following speeches by the concerned parties, excluding Israelis who were not present, I only heard that the agreement would be valid for five years or for seven years. I do think that the installation of European monitors was not a solid measure," Albatta told The New Arab.

He said the Rafah crossing had operated well over the past ten years without the presence of European monitors - even if the terminal has opened only rarely.

"Rafah crossing terminal operated quite well in the time of deposed Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, who ordered the terminal to operate almost around the clock, for a year from 2012 to 2013 - when Morsi was deposed by Egypt's military.

"If that agreement was an international one, why then would Israel not have objected officially to Egyptian authorities, about the reopening of the terminal?"

As'ad Abu Sharekh, an academic and political commentator from Gaza city, told The New Arab that, as a Palestinian, he could not accept presence of European monitors to observe his movement and report back to Israel:

"This crossing should remain Palestinian-Egyptian, and we Palestinians know how to run our border crossings. I believe that the presence of those European observers would only help Israel, from afar, to control Palestinians' movement... Their presence would absolutely restrain movement of Palestinians in general."

Statistics from the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce suggest there are currently 50,000 Palestinians in Gaza without a Palestinian ID. These Palestinians can not leave or return to the Gaza Strip, unless the PA coordinates their movement with Israel.

In such cases, it is nearly impossible to get permission from Israeli authorities. Back in the period in which European monitors were deployed, Israel refused to allow many Palestinians to enter or leave the Gaza Strip.

For the time being, the Rafah crossing terminal remains closed. Over the past ten years, Egypt has frequently closed the crossing for prolonged periods, trapping Gaza's two million residents in coastal territory under siege by Israel since 2006.

Reopening the crossing regularly would enable Gaza's economy to recover, as movement of both individuals and goods would be expected to ease. Rafah's crossing is Gaza's sole door to the outside world.

Rami Almeghari is a Palestinian freelance journalist living and working in Gaza. Follow him on Twitter: @writeralmeghari