x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Rafah crossing opens a gap between Egypt and Israel

Egypt's decision to open the Rafah border crossing to the people of Gaza sends out a message that it will no longer play by Israel's rules.

Tomorrow a shameful period in Egypt's history will come to a close. The new Egyptian government has promised to ease restrictions on Palestinians using the Rafah crossing, thus putting a symbolic end to the blockade it imposed with Israel on the Gaza Strip in 2007, when Hamas took over.

Hosni Mubarak, the deposed president of Egypt, had personal reasons for wanting to strangle Hamas: his security forces battled armed Islamist rebels throughout the 1990s and he accused Iran, one of the main outside sponsors of Hamas, of trying to assassinate him.

But much of Arab opinion saw in this joint blockade proof that Egypt, in Mr Mubarak's declining years, was so sclerotic that it could do nothing but blindly follow America's pro-Israeli policy, even at the cost of adding to the suffering and humiliation of the Gazans.

So it is no surprise that the interim military-led government has chosen to reopen the Rafah border. The decision stems from the Egyptian-brokered deal to end the split between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which rules the West Bank. It is understood that Hamas insisted on it, and Fatah, no less keen in the past than the Israelis to undermine Hamas, agreed.

But it also sends a clear signal to revolutionary-minded Egyptians that foreign policy is changing and Cairo will now act without consulting Israel.

Israel can no longer rely on Arab neighbours to lend it support while it continues to expand settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The benign diplomatic era for Israel, which began with Egypt's peace treaty in 1979 and was reinforced when the Palestinians signed the Oslo peace accords in 1993, is coming to an end. If Israel really wanted peace based on Oslo, that opportunity has been thrown away.

For the Palestinians on the ground, the consequences of the decision are still unclear. Any suggestion that the people of Gaza will henceforth be "free" is wide of the mark. The interests of ordinary Palestinians have always been, and will continue to be, subject to the higher politics of the Arab states and big powers.

The Egyptian government has announced that it will allow in Palestinian students with proof they are attending Egyptian universities as well as medical cases. Women and children will be allowed to enter Egypt visa- free, but men between the ages of 18 and 40 will need visas.

It is not clear how the Hamas-appointed authorities will regulate the border. Exit permits will still be required, and it is not in the interest of either Hamas or Egypt for there to be a free-for-all. In January 2008, when Hamas blew a hole in the border wall, up to half of the population of the Gaza Strip rushed through to stock up on goods and stretch their legs outside their open-air prison.

While people will move more freely, Gaza will not be integrated into the regional economy. The Rafah crossing is not equipped for goods traffic, so the official entry points for all freight will be the two crossings under Israeli control.

The tunnel operators who smuggle goods from Egypt to Gaza will still be in business. While Israel has recently allowed in more imports into Gaza, the tunnels - it is estimated that 1,000 of them have been dug - will still be used for cement, which Israel refuses to allow in, as well as cars, weapons and illegal drugs.

It would be easy to raise foreign funds to build a freight terminal on the Egyptian border, but that would have far-reaching legal consequences.

Israel is still considered the occupying power in Gaza and therefore responsible for the welfare of its people: it controls sea and air access, as well as being the supplier of electricity and fuel and the conduit for all imports and exports.

Israel does not accept that it is the occupying power, but it has not found a way to get out of its duty to keep the Gazans alive. In the long term, Israel would like to shrug off these responsibilities to the Egyptians and then lock the crossing points and throw away the keys. Building a freight terminal at Rafah would, in the opinion of some legal experts, be one step towards that Israeli goal.

Israel, not surprisingly, has called the Rafah decision a "fatal error". It is calling for international supervision of the border, so far without any response from the Egyptians.

While Israeli strategists are already reviewing the foundations of military and diplomatic thinking, the feeling in Israel so far is one of concern rather than alarm.

There are no signs that Egypt is going to renounce its peace treaty with Israel, and for the moment the Egyptian military has it hands full trying to stabilise the country after the revolution.

To judge by the speech he made to the US Congress on Tuesday, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, cares nothing for what the Arab world or Europe thinks, or indeed what President Barack Obama says. All that matters to him is keeping the support of the US Congress and outmanoeuvring his fractious coalition partners.

Clearly Israel will talk up the security threat from increased traffic into Gaza. But the world should remember that Grad rockets (which must have been imported through tunnels) and home-made Qassams have been fired from Gaza during the blockade, and the Israelis did not go out of their way to destroy the tunnels.

The next Grad rocket that is fired from Gaza into Israel will no doubt be blamed on Egypt. This will of course only bolster Mr Netanyahu's arguments in the US for ever closer diplomatic and military support.

But that is not enough. Under the new conditions in the Arab world, spreading the blame will not count as a policy. Israel has taken Egypt for granted for too long. It will have to learn to live with a less predictable neighbour and, if Egypt can work some more diplomatic magic, a unified Palestinian movement.