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Egypt Opens Rafah Crossing: This Is What Democracy Looks Like

June 2, 2011 by  


By Robert Naiman, Truthout

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Hasna el Ryes, a Gaza resident waiting to cross into Egypt, leaves the border terminal after getting an entry stamp in her passport on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing in Egypt, May 28, 2011. Hundreds of Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip arrived by the busload to pass through the reopened border into Egypt, taking the first tangible steps out of an Israeli blockade after years of deadlocked peace talks. (Photo: Holly Pickett / The New York Times)

There was a slogan on the streets of Seattle: “This is what democracy looks like.” You can’t love democracy and denigrate protest, because protest is part of democracy. It’s a package deal.

Likewise, you can’t claim solidarity with Egyptian protesters when they take down a dictator, but act horrified that the resulting government in Egypt, more accountable to Egyptian public opinion, is more engaged in supporting Palestinian rights. It’s a package deal.

On Saturday, at long last, the Egyptian government “permanently opened [3]” the Egypt-Gaza passenger crossing at Rafah. A big part of the credit for this long-awaited development belongs to Tahrir. It was the Tahrir uprising that brought about an Egyptian government more accountable to public opinion and it was inevitable that an Egyptian government more accountable to public opinion would open Rafah, because public opinion in Egypt bitterly opposed Egyptian participation in the blockade on Gaza.

In addition, opening Rafah was a provision of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation accord brokered by the Egyptian government – an achievement facilitated by the fact that the post-Tahrir Egyptian government was more flexible in the negotiations with Hamas that led to the accord.

Mubarak had a deal with the US government: I obey all your commands on the Israel-Palestine issue and in exchange, you shut your mouth about human rights and democracy. Tahrir destroyed this bargain, because it forced the US to open its mouth about human rights and democracy in Egypt, regardless of Egypt’s stance on Israel-Palestine. When it became clear to Egypt’s rulers that subservience to the US on Israel-Palestine would no longer purchase carte blanche on human rights and democracy, there was no reason to slavishly toe the US line on Israel-Palestine anymore.

The Mubarak regime also had a domestic motivation for enforcing the blockade: it saw Hamas as a sister organization of Egypt’s then semi-illegal opposition Muslim Brotherhood and it saw enforcing the blockade as a means of denying Hamas “legitimacy,” figuring that more “legitimacy” for Hamas would mean more “legitimacy” for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, thereby threatening Mubarak’s iron grip on Egypt’s politics.

But, of course, post-Tahrir developments in Egypt threw that calculation out the window: the post-Mubarak government in Egypt has reconciled with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a de facto partner in the present interim government and is expected to do well in September’s parliamentary elections. It would be absurd for the Egyptian government to try to isolate the Muslim Brotherhood by trying to isolate its sister Hamas, when the Muslim Brotherhood is a de facto part of the Egyptian government and the role of the Brotherhood in running Egypt is likely to increase.

There are other considerations. Egypt’s government has seen how Turkey’s influence in the region has grown dramatically as a result of its “no problems with neighbors” policy. Now Egypt is saying: “I’ll have what she’s having,” and moving to normalize relationships in the region, just as Turkey has done.

The opening of the Rafah passenger crossing will mean that women, children and the elderly from Gaza will be able to travel freely to Egypt and, through Egypt, almost anywhere else in the Arab world. Adult men will have to get Egyptian visas, a process that currently can take months.

But – although it is virtually certain that some will try to claim otherwise – the opening of Rafah does not mean that the siege of Gaza is over.

Rafah is a passenger crossing, not a cargo crossing, as The Associated Press noted in reporting on the opening of Rafah. Gaza’s cargo crossings are still controlled by the Israeli government.

The Israeli human rights group Gisha reports that, since 2005, “goods have not been permitted to pass via Rafah, except for humanitarian assistance which Egypt occasionally permits through Rafah.”

In general, the Israeli government does not allow construction materials (cement, steel and gravel) into Gaza. Since January, about 7 percent of what entered monthly prior to June 2007 has been allowed in for specific projects.

The Israeli government prevents regular travel for Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank, even though according to the two-state solution, which is the official policy of the US, Gaza and the West Bank are supposed to be one entity.

Exports from Gaza are generally prohibited by the Israeli authorities.

Palestinians in Gaza cannot farm their lands in Israel’s self-declared “buffer zone” along the northern and eastern borders with Israel, estimated to contain nearly a third of Gaza’s arable land.

The Israeli government does not allow Palestinian fishermen to fish beyond three nautical miles  from Gaza, although under the Oslo Accord, they are supposed to be able to fish for 20 nautical miles from Gaza.

Thus, more pressure is needed on the Israeli government – and the US government, which enables Israeli policies in Gaza – to lift the blockade.

And that’s why it’s so important that another international flotilla is sailing to Gaza in the third week of June, to protest the blockade. It’s time to open all the crossings, not just Rafah.

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