Starving Gaza: Egypt and Israel’s Rafah weapon

The Cradle, January 19, 2024 —

While Israel’s starvation siege of Gaza is well-known, Egypt helps maintain the status quo, quietly profiting from life-or-death border crossing operations.

On a rainy morning, a group of Palestinian children gathered in the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. The gathering was not spontaneous, as children quickly began holding signs reading “Open the crossing.” Their plea was directed towards international organizations across the border in Egypt, conveyed through the signs as aid trucks stacked up, awaiting Egyptian permission to cross.

As the kids roamed around the border fence, lunch was provided to EU observers and civil society staff, who gave up their meals to the children of Rafah. Now here’s the rub. Those placards were not addressed to Egypt. The crossing was not Rafah, but Gaza’s north-eastern Karni border point with Israel. And the incident took place in 2006, not in 2024. 

Agreements to ensure control

In 2006, Israel’s punishment to Palestinians for voting in Hamas during free and fair elections was starvation. This is Tel Aviv’s silent war, a siege that slowly claims its victims, depriving Gaza’s 2.3 million civilians of nourishment and medical relief. 

Since the Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the Strip found itself under a tight blockade, transforming it into a massive open-air prison surrounded by wires and checkpoints. 

Eight crossings were controlled – six of these by Israel – connecting Gaza to the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948. Four of these crossings remained completely closed, and two were opened intermittently: “Beit Hanoun” and “Kerem Shalom.”

Since Israel’s military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv has had a singular goal: to establish total hegemony over Gaza by land, air, and sea. To achieve its aims, three agreements were signed to regulate movement at the crossings: the Crossings Agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (2005), the Palestinian-European-Israeli border control agreement, and the Philadelphi Protocol between Egypt and Israel. 

The latter deal established a 14 km buffer strip along the Egypt-Gaza border and required Israeli–Egyptian security coordination, the presence of Egyptian border guards along the Philadelphi corridor, and security patrols from both sides.

Map of the Gaza Strip crossings

Rafah as the sole lifeline for Gazans 

The Rafah crossing was restricted to Palestinian ID card holders, with exceptions requiring prior notice to the Israeli government and approval from the highest PA authorities. 

The General Authority for Crossings in Gaza, under the PA, handled approvals and objections, with strict timelines set by the crossings agreement. However, tensions rose when Hamas took control of the crossing in 2007, leading to shifts in operations and closures based on the evolving relations between Egypt and Hamas. 

The dynamic changed in 2017 when rivals Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement, aiming to end the persistent internal division. However Israel’s complete blockade on the Gaza Strip after the 7 October Hamas-led resistance operation elevated the significance of the Strip’s border crossings with Egypt. 

Just a year earlier, the Rafah crossing had been open for 245 days and facilitated the passage of over 140,000 people and numerous essential goods such as diesel, cooking gas, and construction materials.

Alongside its brutal, unprecedented, military assault on Gaza, Tel Aviv has instituted a draconian siege on Palestinians in the Strip, cutting off access to water, electricity, and communications – and the essential crossings – for over 100 days now. 

The Rafah crossing has become the sole lifeline for civilians seeking refuge from shelling, or receiving medical treatment or even a meal. While International organizations have flocked to provide aid through the crossing, mass displacement caused by indiscriminate Israeli bombardment – and Egyptian opposition to a resettlement plan in Sinai – have worsened the situation, leading to the emergence of a class of beneficiaries.

Three ways out of Gaza 

Before the war, there were three routes for exiting the Gaza Strip. The official route involved submitting lists of names for approval from the Israeli side, a process often taking several months. Accepted individuals faced additional obstacles on the Egyptian side, including inspections and transport to Cairo airport in a “deportation caravan.” 

The unofficial track, managed by brokerage offices, offered faster passage for fees ranging from $300 to $500 or even up to $10,000. 

The third track, linked to the Egyptian intelligence services is exclusively run by travel company Hala, which a source tells The Cradle is connected to notorious Sinai businessman and warlord Ibrahim al-Arjani

This “VIP” route, established in 2021, allows for swift transit, exemption from inspections, and the option for travelers to stay in Egypt before heading to the airport, with costs ranging from $500 to $700 per person.

Egypt’s profit from Palestinian pain 

Amid the latest Israeli atrocities, the occupation state has permanently barred the exit of individuals not on approved lists, with the exception of dual nationals following foreign embassy interventions. However, some Egyptian officers at the crossing have exploited a loophole known as “security exclusion.” This involves refusing exit for reasons related to the traveler’s perceived association with Hamas, leading to negotiations for substantial sums for exit. 

Despite Gaza’s military and humanitarian devastation and urgent demands by global NGOs to allow aid to enter the Strip, Israel turns a deaf ear. In the International Court of Justice (ICJ) defense argument, Israeli lawyer Christopher Stacker has pointed the finger of blame elsewhere, saying bluntly that “access to the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing is controlled by Egypt.”

It was a feeble attempt to absolve Israel from its international law obligations: the Egyptian government promptly denied the allegations, with the head of the State Information Service (SIS), Diaa Rashwan, dismissing them as “lies.”

Cairo not only denied Israel’s claims but also submitted a comment to the ICJ, clarifying that Egypt did not close the Rafah crossing. While Egypt controls the crossing by land, it is Israel that maintains control from the air. It was Israeli airstrikes at the Rafah crossing and in the nearby town of Khan Yunis where at least 49 people were killed late last year.

The threat looms large. If approval from Israel is not received for the passage of a “deportation convoy” or aid truck, Tel Aviv may revert with further bombings of Rafah. 

But Cairo is not off the hook either. Even if Egypt is held blameless for the primary blockade of Gaza, it unquestionably benefits from it too.

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