Open Gaza unburdens Israel

Palestinians celebrating the opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip last week

Palestinians celebrating the opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip last week

The Israeli government has decided not to object to the opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, despite it being an abrogation of the 2006 agreement between Israel and Egypt to keep the border closed. The crossing was opened to allow almost totally free passage of Palestinian citizens last Saturday.

Following Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, the United States and the European Union reached an agreement that the crossing would be administered by European officials, who were to ensure that arms and terrorists did not pass through.

Israel was also allowed to regulate the crossing using remote control cameras. This arrangement ended following the coup carried out by Hamas in Gaza and the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and his incarceration in Gaza in June 2006. Since then, the Egyptians, in co-ordination with Israel, severely restricted the use of the crossing, mainly allowing humanitarian delegations to go through.

Following the formation of a new interim government in Cairo, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and a rapprochement between Egypt and Hamas, the Egyptian government announced last month that it would end the closure of Gaza by opening the crossing. On the day it opened last Saturday, 450 Palestinians crossed over into Egypt. So far the Egyptians have not allowed cargo to go through, only passengers, and Palestinians between the ages of 18-40 will first have to obtain Egyptian visas, a difficult procedure since the Egyptian visa office is in Ramallah, cut off from the Gaza Strip.

Officially, Israel has kept mum on the development, despite a number of politicians voicing fears that it would help terrorists move their men and weapons in and out of Gaza.

However, a number of senior security officials have said off the record that the change had little meaning since the terror organisations have long been capable of smuggling in whatever they wished through the dozens of tunnels beneath the border. The opening of the crossing was also a positive development, they said, since it eroded the argument that the Gaza Strip is under siege: now not only does Israel allow supplies to enter through the crossings it controls, but Palestinians can travel from Gaza to anywhere in the world via Egypt.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon tried to capitalise on the opening, saying: "By opening the crossing, Egypt is basically taking responsibility for what happens in Gaza." On the other hand, the Egyptian decision is a further signal of the deterioration of their relationship with Israel since the fall of President Mubarak.

Despite the relative calm on the Gaza borders for the past two months, the IDF believes that another flare-up with Hamas is just a matter of time.

On Tuesday, IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee that "the military relations with Egypt are good". He did not specifically mention Gaza, but said that "the IDF is prepared for the potential of a multi-theatre threat. Fighting organisations operating from populated areas will necessitate using a great deal of force, even if it will have a painful effect on the other side.

"In this kind of warfare, we will have to use the 'fifth dimension', which includes regard for issues of international law, humanitarian aid and media management. In the next conflict we will have to shorten the conflict period, so we will use especially powerful weaponary in the opening stage. What the cameras can suffer in the first three days of fighting, they won't suffer in the next three days."

    Last updated: 1:17pm, June 2 2011