The Other Shoe? Egypt Moves to Ease Gaza Siege

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Egypt’s announcement that it will open its border crossing with the Gaza Strip —  loosening the siege of the Palestinian enclave Egypt has helped Israel carry out — has the sound of the other shoe dropping. Coming one day after word that the post-Mubarak government had brokered a tentative unity accord between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, the announcement was difficult not to read as a reward to Hamas for signing on the dotted line.  In fact the agreement Hamas officials initialed on Wednesday turns out to be the same one Fatah signed two years ago.  In its decision to finally join its rival, Hamas surely found strong incentive in the inferno engulfing Syria, the nation that for years has given the organization’s top officials refuge from Israeli surveillance and drones (as well common ground for meeting Hamas’ Iranian sponsors).  Opening the crossing at Rafah, the poor and dusty town where Gaza abuts Egypt, sweetened the deal while also shoring up the Egyptians’ populist credentials.

As Egyptian foreign minister Nabil al-Arabi told Al Jazeera,  the crossing will be opened to “put an end to Palestinian suffering.”

Al-Arabi said the change will come in seven to ten days, but offered no details on what will actually happen.  It’s unlikely that Egypt will allow goods to pass in and out of Gaza. That hasn’t been the case — except through nominally illegal but quite numerous tunnels — since 2005, when Israel shuttered its settlements there and pulled out its soldiers.  But it may well let a lot more people come and go, which would mean a great deal to Gazans who call their enclave “the world’s largest prison.” Since 2006, when Gaza militants captured the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Israel has imposed a blockade on the enclave of 1.5 million people, a kind of collective punishment intended to put pressure on Hamas, which is holding him. The blockade on goods was eased somewhat last summer amid the international outcry over the death of nine Turks by Israeli commandos trying to stop the Mavi Marama from breaking the blockade.

At that point Egypt loosened the rules on who could cross at Rafah, opening passage to students on their way to study in Egypt or abroad, foreigners and selected medical cases.  But no more than 300 people were allowed to cross daily. “If Egypt wanted to be more generous, they’d go back to what the situation was in 2005 and 2006,” says Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha, a nonprofit that advocates freedom of movement in and out of Gaza. In those years, any Palestinian with an Israeli-approved ID could come and go through Rafah.  But, Bashi says, “we don’t know what the Egyptians have in mind.”