06.26.11

Stuck at the Gaza Border

Post-Mubarak Egypt threw open its border with Gaza with great fanfare—so why hasn’t anything changed?

A month after Egypt’s post-revolution government announced it was throwing open its border with the Gaza Strip to break the blockade Israel has imposed on Palestinians there since 2007, little has changed at the crossing.

Egyptian authorities have allowed no goods to move in either direction at Rafah, the town that straddles the line between Egypt and Gaza. Only a fraction of the Palestinians seeking permits to enter Egypt are allowed to cross. According to Hamas official Ghazi Hamad, Palestinians applying to leave Gaza these days are being told to come back in September. “The change has not been very significant,” he told The Daily Beast. “’Everyone is disappointed.”

At least part of the problem is bureaucratic. The military council that has governed Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February is still trying to restore order in parts of the country. Most policemen who walked off the job during the revolution have yet to return to work. The remote Sinai Peninsula, which includes the border area with Gaza, remains particularly chaotic, according to people familiar with the situation there. Officials in Cairo did not want to comment on the state of affairs at Rafah. But Hamad, who served until recently as the Palestinian official in charge of the border crossing, said he was told that it could take many months before Cairo can send police and other personnel to the border in sufficient numbers.

External pressure is also apparently a factor. The new government in Egypt has tried to present itself as less receptive to American prodding than was the Mubarak regime—and less friendly with Israel, in keeping with what polls show Egyptians want.

When Egypt announced plans to open the border in late May, its new foreign minister, Nabil Al-Araby, promised there would be no return to the Mubarak-era policy of keeping Palestinians cloistered in their tiny coastal territory. Egypt’s collusion with the Israeli siege over the years, Araby said, was nothing short of “disgraceful.”

And yet Palestinian officials say they believe American and Israeli pressure on Egypt to keep certain restrictions in place at the border is playing a role in the decision-making. (Officials in both Jerusalem and Washington declined to discuss the matter.)

And then there’s the issue of Cairo’s position toward Hamas, an Islamic movement affiliated with Egypt’s own Muslim Brotherhood. Under Mubarak, Egypt constantly worried about a spillover of Islamic radicalism from Gaza into the Sinai. According to the Israeli rights group Gisha, which advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement, that concern is what dictated Egypt’s policy of keeping the border closed ever since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.

Egypt’s collusion with the Israeli siege over the years, Araby said, was nothing short of “disgraceful.”

The new government has approached Hamas differently, vowing to be more forthcoming at the border and brokering a reconciliation agreement between the group and its Palestinian rival, Fatah. But with that agreement now fraying, analysts say the new policy is being tested.

Israel has eased the blockade somewhat in the past year, since its commandos killed nine people sailing to Gaza in an aid flotilla. Palestinians are now allowed to import most commodities—though not building materials, which Israel says Palestinians can use to make rockets. Whatever items Israel bans, Gazans can usually bring in illegally through a network of tunnels dug beneath the border at Rafah. (Political and humanitarian groups are now organizing a new flotilla to set sail in the coming weeks.)

But the siege policy has prevented Palestinian businessmen from exporting their goods to Israel, the West Bank, and other markets, essentially devastating Gaza’s entrepreneurial middle class. It also has driven unemployment up and made most Palestinians reliant on humanitarian aid. Since Hamas controls and taxes the tunnel industry, Israel’s policy has had the unfortunate effect of enriching and empowering one of its most implacable enemies. “Israel has helped the Hamas regime consolidate control by shifting import to the tunnels,” says Sari Bashi, Gisha’s executive director. Score one for the law of unintended consequences.