x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

Morsi meeting opens a door on Gaza blockade

For many years, and certainly since the start of the crippling Israeli siege of Gaza in 2006, Egypt has played a shameful role as an accomplice to the blockade of Gaza.

Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi is a man in a hurry. In the three weeks since he took office, he has built bridges with Saudi Arabia, sought to mend fences with the United States, tried to stop the construction of a dam in Ethiopia and may now be preparing to tear down Egypt's own wall in Gaza.

In a historic move for an Egyptian leader, Mr Morsi met on Friday the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, in the first such meeting since the Palestinian movement was founded. Two days before, Mr Morsi had met Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of Fatah, which rules the West Bank.

Mr Meshaal hailed a "new era" in Egyptian-Palestinian relations, and there were signals at least of a welcome change. For many years, and certainly since the start of the crippling Israeli siege of Gaza in 2006, Egypt has played a shameful role as an accomplice to the blockade of Gaza.

The crossing at Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip, is the only one not under full Israeli military control. As such, Rafah has always been the one potential link from the Strip to the outside world, as the Israeli military denies Gazans goods, services and the free movement of people. Although Egypt has allowed some items and people through - and often turned a blind eye to the tunnels under the border - traffic has been tightly controlled by quotas.

Already the Morsi era is changing that. The crossing at Rafah now allows more Palestinians through each day, and may soon be open 24 hours a day.

But a new era in relations will bring its own challenges. While Israel's settlement expansion in the West Bank continues, Gaza is being starved. Yet despite the siege, Gazans have shown enormous creativity in making products and finding ways to survive.

In that, there is a challenge: if Egypt opens the border, it is likely that Gaza will continue to draw closer to Egypt, with more business and personal links created. There is nothing wrong with stronger ties with Egypt, but Gazans' compatriots are in the West Bank, not over the border in Sinai. It may also be telling that Mr Morsi met with Mr Meshaal, and not Hamas's Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who exerts more influence in the Strip.

In any case, closer relations with Palestinians will complicate Egypt's relationship with Israel, and with their mutual benefactor, the United States.

There is natural sympathy between Hamas and Mr Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. But in this new era, Mr Morsi's policy towards Gaza and Israel will be governed less by sympathy and more by hard politics.