Egypt Opens Border with Gaza
Egypt lifted a 4-year-old blockade of the Gaza Strip on Saturday, greatly easing travel restrictions on the 1.5 million residents of the Palestinian territory in a move that bolstered the Hamas government while dealing a setback to Israel’s attempts to isolate the militant group.
Saturday’s expansion of the Rafah crossing was a tangible benefit of the popular unrest sweeping through the Arab world. The blockade, which has fueled an economic crisis in Gaza, is deeply unpopular among Arabs, and Egypt’s caretaker leaders had promised to end it since the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after the Islamic militant Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007. The closure aimed to weaken Hamas. But the Iranian-backed group remains firmly in power, operating the border crossing even at a time when it is supposed to be reconciling with the rival Fatah movement.
Until Saturday, the Rafah border terminal had functioned at a limited capacity. Only certain classes of people, such as students, businessmen or medical patients, were eligible to travel and the crossing was often subject to closures, leading to huge backlogs that forced people to wait for months.
Israel, which controls Gaza’s cargo crossings, allows most consumer goods into Gaza, but still restricts exports as well as the entry of much-needed construction materials, saying they could be used by militants. Israel also enforces a naval blockade aimed at weapons smuggling.
Israeli and American officials have expressed concerns that Hamas will exploit the opening to bring weapons and fighters into Gaza. In January 2008, masked militants blew open the Rafah border wall, allowing thousands of people to pour in and out of Egypt.
One expects that this will set off another round of histrionics regarding Israel here in the US.
However, I have to wonder as to the degree which treating Gaza like a large refugee camp is actually in Israel’s long-term interest. It seems to me that the best way to stoke the fire of radicalism is to be seen as outside oppressors who are actively working to curtail normal life. Yes, I understand the logic of putting the squeeze on Hamas, but one has to admit that so doing has a large impact on a rather large number of people. If the goal is to stop Palestinian aggression, there is at least the possibility to consider that maybe allowing Gaza to develop is in Israel’s long-term interests.