The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Clashes at Rafah

Following up on the previous post about the standoff between pro-Palestinian activists from the Viva Palestina convoy and Egyptian security, the situation has escalated at the border with Palestinians clashing with Egyptian border guards, one of whom has been reported killed (the second in a week I think.) This is a bad development, for both sides, and Hamas is clearly flexing its muscle after the construction of the wall and the treatment of the solidarity campaigns. I wonder if Egypt has thought through pushing the Gazans against the wall (so to speak.)

Below is a report from Al Jazeera English.

On the upside, Viva Palestina has come up with a compromise with the Egyptian government and trucks have started to very slowly make their way to Gaza. Some trucks will have to go through Israel first, and may be delayed there for a while, or not get in altogether. There a good blog post at the New Internationalist by a member of the Viva Palestina convoy:

As the sun went down on another unpredictable day yesterday, we were all here in El-Arish port, people and vehicles reunited and aid all intact. After all the delays and extra costs, Gaza is only 40km away, but there were more unpleasant surprises in store for us, when the local authorities walked out of negotiations about which vehicles and aid they wanted to allow into Gaza. Instead of returning, they sent 2,000 uniformed riot cops and non-uniformed provocateurs to surround the port, blockading us in and then attacking those protesting at the gates with paving slabs and more.

So instead of driving to Gaza, the convoy spent the first half of the night in a pitched battle with Egyptian police, who used pepper spray, water cannon, rocks and metal batons against a couple of hundred of our volunteers. Middle-eastern TV broadcast five hours of live coverage of the battle into homes across the region, exposing still further the
criminal role of Egypt in the siege of Gaza.

Fifty-five convoy members were wounded during the fighting, several of whom had to be taken to hospital for treatment, being beyond the scope of the ad hoc first aid station we set up within the port compound. Six brothers of various nationalities were arrested and held all night and most of today in a police van without food, water or toilet facilities.

This morning, Viva Palestina announced that negotiations at the highest level, between the Egyptian and Turkish prime ministers, had failed to persuade the Egyptians to let all our vehicles in, so cars and 4x4s requested by doctors and clinics will not be delivered to Gaza, but will instead be taken by Turkish drivers to refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. All the people and aid have been agreed to, however, so now we are just waiting for the army to open the gates and then we will make our way to Rafah and on into Gaza this evening.

Interesting to see the Turkish role here, considering Turkey's strong stance against Israel during and since the war as well as the extremely helpful and discreet role it is playing in inter-Palestinian negotiations. The Egyptians need Turkish goodwill at this point.

It's worth remembering that, on average, on 41 trucks have been going into Gaza since the war, compared to a normal traffic of thousands of trucks. You can get this statistic and others from a short but informative report by Oxfam on the impact of the blockade on reconstruction.

A note to explain Egypt's position on this matter, and why truck traffic is generally NOT allowed in through the Rafah crossing:

- Rafah is a passenger terminal, and the Egyptian government has always refused to upgrade it to a full commercial terminal. This has been the case even before last year's war and the current version of the blockade in place since June 2007, when Hamas took control of Gaza. Passenger traffic has also long been restricted, and moreso in recent years.

- Aside for a limited amount of humanitarian traffic, trucks usually have to go through the Kerem Shalom crossing (its Hebrew name) where the borders of Gaza, Egypt and Israel meet, a few kilometers south of Rafah. Currently this path is open but since the war the Israelis have severely slowed the processing of the trucks and restricted the type of good allowed in (including most construction materials.)

- Rafah could be turned into a full commercial terminal pretty easily and without much cost. Egypt has refused to do so because its position is that it cannot have a fully open border without a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that clearly delineates borders. Of course, this is rather ridiculous if humanitarian concerns were the priority, so what's behind Egypt's thinking? Aside from its current distaste for Hamas and US-Israeli pressure to maintain the blockade, it has an understandable fear that should Egypt become the main trading point with Gaza, which would not only work to facilitate Israel's illegal attempts to severe links between the West Bank and Gaza, but also de facto dump the problem of Gaza onto Egypt. This is known in certain Israeli circles as the "Gaza is Egypt solution." Egyptian officials insist Gaza is Israel's responsibility as an occupying power (which is correct under international law), and therefore will not develop its own links with the territory outside of a wider framework of Palestinian integration and clearer borders between Israel and Palestine.

- Of course this does not mean Egypt's hands are tied. It could continue making this argument while opening up border traffic to allow for the much needed humanitarian aid and construction materials, bypassing Israel altogether. It could also implement a system to allow greater passenger traffic. Some of this would take time for technical reasons (you need to set up the infrastructure to handle the added traffic). But this would have all sorts of consequences in terms of Israel's behavior towards Egypt, its potential actions in Gaza, the peace process, and Quartet attitudes towards Egypt. Cairo would have to be prepared for some regional turmoil, changes in regional attitudes, American anger and more unpredictable surprises. It's certainly not something Hosni Mubarak, whose best day is the day where nothing happens, would be prepared to do (never mind his ideological bearings).

- There is another technical element to Egypt's position on Rafah. In 2005, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA), which stipulates a PA presence at the border. This document is endorsed by the Quartet, and also provides for . Since June 2007, Egypt has insisted that the PA return to the Palestinian side of the border, which is controlled by Hamas, and has used the AMA to justify its participation in the blockade. For now, the AMA (although it was not signed by Egypt) is a core part of any resolution to this problem as seen by Egypt and the Middle East Quartet. Full or partial Palestinian reconciliation could see a deal to return the PA to the border, of course, but that dossier is also in Egyptian hands.