The world seems to have forgotten that the Gaza Strip has a shared border not only with Israel, but with Egypt as well. The Rafah border crossing (on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt) is the main exit point for most Palestinians. This border crossing, however, has been essentially closed since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. It is only opened every few days or weeks to allow a trickle of Palestinians to come or go to the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Egypt has resumed its mediation efforts to prevent an all-out military confrontation between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Earlier this week, senior officials from Egypt's General Intelligence Service (Mukhabarat) who visited the Gaza Strip reportedly relayed to Hamas leaders a message from Israel: it promised to "ease restrictions" on the Palestinians in return for a cessation of anti-Israel terrorist attacks.
According to some reports, the promised Israeli measures include, among other things, increasing electricity and fuel supplies and facilitating the entry of merchandise into the Gaza Strip. Since the beginning of the year, Israel has indeed taken a number of measures to help the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The measures, which included the expansion of the fishing zone and the delivery of Qatari cash grants to the Gaza Strip, came in the context of ceasefire understandings reached between Israel and Hamas under the auspices of Egypt, the United Nations and Qatar.
Israel's goodwill gestures, however, have so far failed to deter Hamas and other Palestinian groups from repeatedly violating the ceasefire understandings. Shortly before the Egyptian intelligence officials arrived in the Gaza Strip, another rocket was fired toward Israel, causing a brush fire near the city of Sderot. Two women were treated for shock after the rocket strike.
It is important to note that the Egyptian intelligence officials -- who have visited the Gaza Strip several times in the past few months -- often discuss with Hamas leaders the particulars of the Hamas regime's demands for Israel to help the Palestinians. Generally left aside, however, is what Egypt, which has a shared border with the Gaza Strip, might do to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians.
Egyptian officials always carry encouraging messages from Israel to Hamas: Israel is prepared to do whatever is required to help the Palestinians in return for a cessation of terrorist attacks against Israel. Meanwhile, the Egyptians themselves offer nothing but broken promises regarding the crisis in the Gaza Strip. Egyptian policy is, it appears, based on the assumption that the Gaza Strip is – and must remain – solely the problem of Israel.
Why do Egyptians have to travel all the way to Israel to discuss supplying the Gaza Strip with food, medicine and fuel (through Israel) when Egypt can easily do so through its shared border with the Gaza Strip? The world seems to have forgotten that the Gaza Strip has a shared border not only with Israel, but with Egypt as well.
The Rafah border crossing (on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt) is the main exit point for most Palestinians. This border crossing, however, has been essentially closed since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. It is only opened every few days or weeks to allow a trickle of Palestinians to come or go to the Gaza Strip.
According to Gisha, an Israeli organization that strives to protect Palestinian freedom of movement, particularly residents of the Gaza Strip, Egypt generally allows movement of Palestinians into its territory in accordance with restricted criteria: only to those with referrals for medical treatment at Egyptian hospitals, students with visas to study in Egypt or third countries, and holders of foreign residency or foreign passports.
The organization pointed out that since mid-May 2018, the Rafah border crossing has been open about five days per week for movement in both directions. "This is the longest period of time the crossing has been opened consecutively in about five years," it said.
Palestinians say that 2017 was the worst year of all at the Rafah border crossing. In that entire year, the Egyptians opened the border for only 29 days. In 2016, the border was open for a total of 41 days, while in 2015 it was open only for 32 days.
The Egyptians, to justify the closure of their shared border with the Gaza Strip, have cited security concerns -- as if the same problem did not apply to Israel. At one point, the Egyptians said they suspected that Muslim terrorists operating against the Egyptian army in the Sinai Peninsula were collaborating with Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip.
The Egyptians have also cited the continued dispute between Hamas in the Gaza Strip near Egypt and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank near Jordan -- on the other side of Israel -- as another reason for the harsh travel restrictions imposed on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. When Hamas was democratically elected to rule the Gaza Strip in 2006, one of its first acts was to oust the PA from there, sometimes by throwing men from the top floors of high-rise buildings. The PA fled. Abbas is still unable to visit his house in Gaza City.
Earlier this year, the PA withdrew its staff from the Rafah crossing to protest another Hamas crackdown: on its men stationed at the crossing there. The PA was able temporarily to come back to the border crossing after an Egyptian-sponsored "reconciliation" agreement with Hamas that did not last long.
The PA accused Hamas of "arresting and abusing" its employees and obstructing "the work of our crew." The PA's move effectively shut the border crossing, but it was reopened a week later, apparently after Hamas and the Egyptian authorities reached another understanding.
Since January, when the PA finally pulled its staff totally out of the Rafah crossing, the Palestinian side of the terminal has been under the exclusive control of Hamas. Yet, since then, the presence of Hamas has not stopped Egypt from keeping the border open only intermittently. So much for Egypt's claim that the border crossing cannot be reopened so long as Hamas and the PA continue their apparently endless war.
If Egypt is able to administer the Rafah crossing together with Hamas, as is the situation now, why can't the Egyptians work out their own deal with Hamas to use the border crossing to ease the suffering of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip?
Gaza's main problems include soaring unemployment, shortage of fuel and electricity supplies, as well as high taxes imposed by the Hamas regime. Many Palestinians, particularly young people, want to leave the Gaza Strip to search for work in Europe and other countries. Most Palestinians do not seem to be interested in settling in Egypt, where they have little chance of finding work. They just want the Egyptians to allow them to use the Rafah border crossing to travel to third countries.
Why are the Egyptians mediating between Israel and Hamas about the problems of the Gaza Strip when they can be easily doing that with just the Hamas leaders? Why can't Egypt and Hamas tell Israel: "We do not need your help anymore. We can solve the problems of the Gaza Strip through our own border crossing."
If Egypt has its own reasons for not helping the Gaza Strip, that is one thing. But why is Egypt preventing other Arabs and the rest of the world from entering the Gaza Strip to help the Palestinians by providing them, for example, with food, medicine and fuel.
If the Egyptians are so afraid of Hamas, as they say, because of its ties to terrorist groups in their Sinai Peninsula, why do they keep sending senior Egyptian intelligence officials to the Gaza Strip to negotiate with Hamas? If Hamas poses such a threat to Egypt's national security, why does Egypt keep inviting Hamas leaders to Cairo every few weeks for discussions with senior Egyptian intelligence officials?
Is it possible that the Egyptians are engaged in a policy of appeasement toward Hamas because they are afraid of Hamas? Or do they want Hamas and the Gaza Strip's two million Palestinians to remain just Israel's problem? Or, for some Egyptians, is keeping Gaza in isolation big business?
Something seems strange when, on the one hand, you accuse Hamas of aiding terrorist groups on Egyptian territory, while on the other your senior intelligence officials are consorting with Hamas leaders every few weeks.
Egypt's shifting and sometimes contradictory policy toward the Gaza Strip seems to have one goal: to divert attention from Cairo's responsibility for the ongoing plight of its Palestinian neighbors.
Like most Arab states, Egypt evidently wants the world to continue holding Israel alone responsible for the economic and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. The Arab states' excuse that they do not want to help the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip because of Hamas is baseless. The Arabs were not exactly helping the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip before Hamas violently took it over from the PA and forced the PA out.
If the Arabs were serious about helping to solve the problems of the Gaza Strip, they could have done so a long time ago -- and without Israel's help. All they need to do is go to Egypt and demand that it permanently re-open its border with the Gaza Strip and remove all restrictions so that they and others could come in and help. Arabs could, for example, help solve the problem of unemployment and poverty by investing in economic projects and infrastructure; they could also offer Palestinians who want to leave the Gaza Strip jobs in Arab countries. There are, in the Gaza Strip, many university graduates who are not involved with Hamas or other terrorist groups. The Egyptians and Arabs could check their credentials before allowing them in to make sure that they were not terrorists.
The Arab countries, however, are not interested in helping the Gaza Strip. As far as they are concerned, the Palestinians are "our dear and beloved brothers" so long as they stay far away from the Arab countries and remain a headache just for Israel.
Here is what Egypt and the Arab states should be telling Israel: "Thank you for all that you have done so far to help the people of the Gaza Strip. However, these are our Arab brothers. Therefore, it seems fair that we step in and assume this burden." If Egypt or any other Muslim country or leader is imagined in this scenario, it appears in reality unlikely to play out.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.