Ha’aretz, Amira Hass – Back in February, Egyptian diplomats predicted that Egypt would help bring about an internal Palestinian rapprochement, but what good is reconciliation if Palestinians from Gaza still won’t be able to travel to the West Bank?
As someone who considers herself to be a conservative journalist, I make an effort to refrain from reporting about what will happen in the future. Too many headlines, in my opinion, are about what so-and-so will say and what the fate of so-and-so will be. In the face of competition from the Internet and television, the printed press, afraid of becoming irrelevant, is often forced into making predictions. “I forgot my crystal ball at home” – is how I respond to the question “What will be?” I prefer to focus on what has been done and been said today and yesterday.
Nos, in wake of the internal Palestinian appeasement accord, I regret that I was so conservative. In February, two Egyptian diplomats and one European diplomat predicted to me then that after the revolution, Egypt would succeed in bringing about a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. The European said that former President Hosni Mubarak and General Omar Suleiman were adamant that there be a “reconciliation process” – as in “peace process,” for appearances’ sake, without changing a thing. Preventing a rapprochement, after all, was in line with the desires of Israel and the United States, he pointed out.
Because of the rush of events in Egypt and the news being generated there on a daily basis during the revolution, I kept putting off writing the “Israeli-Palestinian chapter” I had planned on. My reservations about prophecies were also a factor. Had I written the piece then, I would obviously have included the predictions of these diplomats that the peace treaty with Israel would not be affected but that “there would no longer be a situation in which when Israel bombs Gaza, the Egyptian president to host the Israeli prime minister in Sharm-a-Sheikh.”
One of the diplomats forecast that the Egyptian ambassador to Israel might be recalled. Another envisioned Egypt taking a tougher diplomatic approach to Israel. But all three were convinced that there would not be a drastic change in the Egyptian “Rafah policy.” “The easiest thing to do, the most populist, would be to open up Rafah,” one of the Egyptian diplomats told me. Closing the Rafah border crossing was in Egypt’s interest and was not a result of ‘Mubarak’s collaboration with Israel,’ as many charged, the three concurred The two Egyptian diplomats told me there was no chance that the Rafah checkpoint will be opened completely so long as the Erez crossing remained closed and Israel continued to separate Gaza from the West Bank.
All those who support a two-state solution and a Palestinian state comprised of the West Bank and Gaza, they said, would have to ensure freedom of movement for Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank and the rights of Gazans to visit, remain, study and work in the West Bank. Opening the Rafah crossing without providing the Palestinian residents of Gaza freedom of access to the West Bank would play into Israel’s hands and its plan to “throw Gaza to the Egyptians.” That would obviously be after it failed to sink into the seas on its own, as the late Yitzhak Rabin once wished.
(But recent events provide another opportunity to shout into the void of willful forgetfulness: Ever since January 1991, long before Hamas rose to power, long before the suicide bombings, even before the Oslo accords, Israel restricted the Palestinians’ rights to travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. That was when the “caging” of Gaza started, and this cage has gradually become more and more closed over time. In 1997, Israel forbade Gazans to enter the West bank via the Allenby Bridge. Why? Because ever since 1991, when the travel-ban system, misnamed the permits regime, was introduced and when students and businessmen, for example, were not permitted to drive the 70 kilometers that separate Gaza from Ramallah, they would leave from Rafah and enter the West Bank via Jordan. Starting in 2000, Israel declared that those Gazans who were in the West Bank were “illegal sojourners” if their travel permits had expired. As of 2010, the judicial military system defines them as “infiltrators” who face either arrest or expulsion. In 1996, it transpired that Israel, in violation of the Oslo accords, was not allowing the Palestinian Authority to change the ID addresses of Palestinians who had moved from Gaza to the cities of the West bank. )
On the other hand, maybe it was a good thing that I didn’t write that chapter. According to a declaration by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi, the Rafah crossing is scheduled to open in about 10 days. Contrary to what the two diplomats representing the old Egyptian regime had predicted, the foreign minister is not waiting for the rights of movement between the Gaza Strip and the West bank to be reinstated.
On yet another hand, we still don’t know what this “opening” implies. Will Gazans not have to request an entry visa into Egypt in advance and be granted one immediately upon arriving at the terminal? Or will the visa be granted easily and swiftly, and not merely to “important people,” the sick and the very affluent, as is the case today? Will entire families be able to board a bus in Khan Yunis and travel to Alexandria without coordinating and planning ahead and without enduring the nerve-wracking wait for replies from Egyptian intelligence? Will a goods terminal be built at Rafah (something that would put an end to the tunnel economy )? Will foreign citizens, including Egyptians, be able to enter Gaza via Rafah without the need to pull all sort of strings and without having to show Egyptian Intelligence clearance documents at half a dozen roadblocks on the way from Cairo to el-Arish? That would be the significance of a real “opening.”
There is no doubt that this would improve life for Gazans. But, like a glove, it would also fit Israel’s separation policy.
Apropos reconciliation, this is what Abu Basil from Rafah had to tell me. (His family is from Bureir on whose lands the kibbutz Bror Hayil was set up ). When his children heard about the reconciliation agreement, they cheered. “Now Aunt Amira [the Jewish aunt] will be able to come and visit again,” they said. It made me laugh, and it made me sad. The children immediately concluded that reconciliation would mean freedom of movement into Gaza. But they didn’t say: “Now we’ll be able to go to the West Bank.” Their imagination does not stretch so far.