Skip to content

What’s the Significance of Egypt’s Reopening of the Rafah Crossing?

Yesterday, Egypt reopened the Rafah crossing between the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. Egypt closed the crossing in 2007 as part of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza following the seizure of power by Hamas. The reopening, in the face of Israel’s obviously valid security concerns, indicates a warming of relations between Egypt and Hamas. It also formally revokes the 2005 Rafah Agreement between Egypt and Israel, which was put into place after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza.

Egypt has opened the crossing to human traffic only (no merchandise, at least at this point). Men between the ages of 18 and 40 will require visas to cross, but all other men and boys, as well as all women, will be able to cross without a visa. On Saturday, of the 450 people who arrived at Rafah, 28 were refused entry into Egypt. Hamas is said to be anticipating a flow of supporters from Egypt into the Gaza Strip, but the bulk of the initial flow was in the other direction.

Hamas has demanded that no international observers be present at the reopened crossing. Egypt agreed, saying its own supervision should be sufficient. Israel is not showing any great (public) dismay at this, since the EU observers who were in place for a year and a half following the Rafah Agreement didn’t contribute much to Israel’s security anyway.

The reopening of the crossing represents a weakening of Israel’s security position to the west, regardless who purports to be watching the traffic, but arms and terrorist personnel have long flowed into the Gaza Strip via the tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor and will no doubt continue to do so. This move is ominous as far as Egyptian-Israeli relations are concerned, but does not represent an immediate and dramatic worsening of the security situation, at least for the time being.

There is a temptation to read the opening as an overture by Egypt not only to Hamas but to its sponsor, Iran. That may well be the case, but Egyptian suspicions continue to run high toward the Shia expansionist regime in Teheran. Any boost to Hamas gives Iran a leg up, but there’s some time yet before Cairo opens its arms to Iran in welcome. The powers that be in Cairo are trying to maintain the status quo in shifting terrain, a challenge the Americans would do well to examine and attempt to understand.

Lee Smith, author of the outstanding book The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizationsmakes the point with characteristic clarity in The Weekly Standard:

Iranian aggression, and not the peace process, as Netanyahu was careful to remind his American audiences this past week, is still the key regional issue. With the administration turning on traditional American allies, some observers are starting to see similarities between Washington and Tehran, in one important respect. “If Obama says the status quo is unsustainable,” says Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “and won’t do anything to sustain it, then Washington, like Iran, is an anti-status quo power. Others have to take it upon themselves to defend the status quo.”

…The major Sunni Arab players outside the enlarged GCC would be Fatah, now reconciled with Hamas, and Egypt, formerly the central pillar of Washington’s Middle East policy, and now after thirty years once again up for grabs…

The Iranians want to protect their investment in Syria, but at some point Tehran may come to feel that the Alawite regime’s sectarian cleansing of Sunnis is bad for business…Presumably, Tehran is watching the new Palestinian concord with great interest, and may be learning from its client there, Hamas.

It is true that the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation may not survive even until the Palestinians’ September push at the U.N. General Assembly, but in terms of the regional chessboard Palestinian unity is irrelevant. The major player here is Egypt, which helped broker the deal. Hamas sloughed off Damascus’s problematic patronage once it realized that it could ride Cairo instead—a much more natural fit given that Egypt is a Sunni power, and one whose Muslim Brotherhood, with whom Hamas has strong ties, is enjoying a period of political prominence.

Washington is starting to realize that one of the values of the late Mubarak regime was its implacable hatred of Hamas. Cairo’s present rulers, however, can no longer afford such an ideological luxury; the Egyptians need to raise money quickly or they will starve. The way to do that is by presenting themselves as the antithesis of Mubarak’s stable, or static, Egypt, an Egypt that may well spin out of the American orbit—unless Washington antes up. The concern is not that Egypt will jump sides entirely and join the resistance bloc, but rather make trouble by flirting with Iran, like with its decision to end the blockade of Gaza.

It will be interesting to see to what extent, if at all, the end of the Egyptian blockade of Gaza will affect the flotillas. On the one hand, the “humanitarian crisis” has just been alleviated with one fell swoop. On the other hand, the opening gives juice to the story that the Arab world, so stricken by the Palestinians’ plight, will join together to liberate Gaza from Israeli inhumanity.  (It’s a good bet which way those cards will fall.) What’s important about the opening of the crossing is not so much the aid and comfort it will give to Hamas. It’s the extent to which the Americans will register its significance as an indicator of the difficulty of Egypt’s balancing act.