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Pressure mounts to open Rafah as 3rd Intifada erupts in Egypt

Egypt's Rafah border crossing wth the Gaza Strip

CAIRO, May 14 (IPS) – In a dramatic policy shift late last month, Egypt’s post-revolutionary government announced plans to reopen the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip. And on Friday, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians amassed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the decision be carried out without delay.

Egypt’s sovereign decision to reopen the border represents a new chapter in Egyptian policy vis-à-vis Palestine, which is finally coming into line with the popular will,” Tarek Fahmi, political science professor at Cairo University, told IPS.

On April 29, Egypt’s recently-appointed foreign minister Nabil al-Arabi announced that the Rafah terminal — the only crossing along Egypt’s 14-kilometer border with the Gaza Strip — would soon be reopened on a permanent basis. He went on to describe Egypt’s longstanding closed-border policy, maintained by the ousted Hosni Mubarak regime, as “shameful.”

“The FM’s statements mean Rafah will soon be reactivated as a normal international border crossing,” Mohamed Megahid al-Zayat, assistant director of the Cairo-based National Centre for Middle-East Studies, told IPS. “And this means that the former regime’s policy of using the crossing in the service of Israel — as a means of pressuring Gaza’s Hamas-led government — has come to an end.”

The decision was reportedly taken only hours before rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah announced from Cairo that they had agreed to form a national unity government, thus ending years of Palestinian division.

In 2006, Israel sealed its border with the Gaza Strip after Hamas, which cleaves to a policy of armed resistance to Israel, swept Palestinian legislative elections. One year later, after Hamas seized control of the strip from the US-backed Fatah, Egypt closed the Rafah crossing to all human and commercial traffic.

The de facto siege effectively sealed the territory off from the rest of the world, depriving its roughly 1.8 million inhabitants of most basic commodities. Following Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, the Rafah crossing was reopened to limited human traffic, although most commercial goods still remain barred from entry.

Virtually all of Egypt’s main political forces have lauded al-Arabi’s decision to reopen the border.

“The Mubarak-era policy of keeping the border closed for the sake of Israel and the US had brought shame on Egypt,” Saad al-Husseini, a leading member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (which is ideologically affiliated with Hamas), told IPS. “But after the revolution, Egypt is reorienting its policies in the interest of Egypt, the Palestinian cause and the Arab world, thereby reactivating its historical role as regional leader.”

Hamas, too, welcomed the decision, with Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nunu describing the move as a “positive step” on the part of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has governed the country since Mubarak’s February ouster. “We hope to swiftly implement the decision and bring an end to the continued Palestinian suffering due to siege.”

Israel, meanwhile, reacted to the SCAF’s apparent policy reorientation with dismay.

“We are troubled by recent developments in Egypt,” a senior Israeli official was quoted as saying the following day. “These developments can affect Israel’s national security at a strategic level.”

The Mubarak regime had justified the border closure by referring to a 2005 US-backed security pact between Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority that had allowed Israel to closely monitor all traffic through the Rafah crossing. According to that arrangement, the crossing could not be reopened until a contingent of EU “observers” — who had quit the border following Hamas’ takeover — returned to their posts.

The terms of that agreement, however — to which Egypt was never signatory — now appear to be a non-starter, with leading Fatah official Nabil Shaath saying that the 2005 pact would “not be a factor” in the border’s future operations.

Egypt, Hamas and Fatah all reject the terms of the 2005 agreement and are currently discussing new arrangements for operating the crossing,” said Fahmi. “These discussions are tied to the FatahHamas security arrangements that are now being hammered out by the two factions following the reconciliation deal.”

“The crossing’s infrastructure will have to be upgraded in order to accommodate commercial traffic, however, and this will take time,” he added.

On Friday (May 13), hundreds of thousands of Egyptian protesters swarmed Cairo’s Tahir Square to condemn Israel’s continued mistreatment of the Palestinians and the unabated theft of Palestinian land. Along with calling for national unity following a recent spate of sectarian unrest, demonstrators demanded the immediate reopening of the border, the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in historical Palestine, and the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to Egypt.

Many protesters also called for the abrogation of Egypt’s 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel. “The Egyptian people are overwhelmingly opposed to the terms of Camp David,” 28-year-old demonstrator Ahmed Sherara told IPS while collecting signatures in support of the treaty’s annulment.

Friday saw similar pro-Palestine demonstrations staged in cities throughout the Middle East as part of a “Third Intifada,” scheduled to coincide with the May 15 anniversary of the Nakba, or “Catastrophe,” when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes in 1948 to make way for the nascent state of Israel.

Egyptian activists had initially called on protesters to move en masse across the Sinai Peninsula towards the Rafah crossing. On Thursday, however, head of Hamas’ political bureau Khaled Meshaal issued a statement saying that such a move was unnecessary.

“We do not ask you to march [to Rafah]. Egyptians of various factions and sectors must first unite to establish a strong internal front,” said Meshaal. “We cannot call on Egypt to engage in a direct clash or war with the Zionist Entity at the critical stage through which Egypt is now passing.”

Nevertheless, the Egyptian authorities don’t appear to be taking any chances, with Al Jazeera reporting that security forces had declared a “state of alert” at all entry points into Sinai.

“No one is being allowed to enter the peninsula without express authorization from the authorities,” a North Sinai security source, preferring anonymity, told IPS.

By Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

View the original article at Veterans Today

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