Tel Aviv — The initial Israeli government response to Egypt’s decision last week to open its crossing with the Gaza Strip was to stress the danger that weapons and militants would freely pass in and out of the territory controlled by Hamas.
And on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was still echoing that position during testimony before the Knesset as he accused Egypt of strengthening the Islamic militants.
But some Israeli officials and analysts argue that the border opening won’t necessarily hurt Israeli security and may even present an unexpected strategic benefit: allowing Israel to move beyond its 2005 military withdrawal from Gaza and make a definitive break with the impoverished enclave of 1.5 million Palestinians.
In the last six years, Israel’s effort to lock down access to Gaza while arguing publicly that it is no longer responsible for the territory has been a diplomatic contradiction.
The border opening “creates clarity in the relationship. Gaza is now clearly foreign territory — open to Egypt — which we are in conflict with,” said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute think tank and a former peace negotiator. “Israel can’t have it both ways. … We got both the Kassams [rockets] and the delegitimization.”
Since Israel withdrew its army from Gaza in September 2005, it has been dogged by claims that it is still an occupying power and responsible for humanitarian and economic conditions there by virtue of the fact that it controls access by land, sea and air.
Egypt’s move to open up passage at Rafah to the general public for the first time since 2006 will eventually pave the way for the establishment of a commercial crossing there, Grinstein said.
While that punctures Israel’s siege on Gaza and Hamas, it would also end the territory’s dependence on Israel and could relieve the Jewish state of claims that it is responsible for the humanitarian situation there.
“This was the inevitable final step of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005. … Israel has an opportunity to unequivocally and fully disconnect from Gaza, and to hopefully establish a new platform of peaceful coexistence and trade arrangements across the Gaza border, which is an internationally recognized boundary,” Grinstein said.
That would potentially create a signal change in the status of the Gaza Strip.
According to Israeli-Palestinian agreements in the 1990s, Gaza and the West Bank were recognized as one political and economic unit. But the unilateral establishment of a trade route via Egypt would remove Gaza from that economic union — cutting it loose from Israel and the West Bank.
Grinstein said that the Palestinians effectively established two separate entities — Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank — and Israel has no interest in encouraging reunification until the Islamic militants accept Israel’s existence and foreswear violence.
Therein lies the paradox and potential boomerang effect of the opening of the border crossing: Egypt made the decision to play to popular sympathies with Gaza and to provide a carrot so Hamas and Fatah would resolve their rift and reunify the Palestinian territories. But not only could this deepen the divide, Egypt could end up being saddled with more responsibility for the impoverished region.
For those reasons, say some, Cairo is unlikely to fully open Rafah with a trade link.
“It is doing this out of concern for the integrity of Gaza and the West Bank as a single territorial unit, which is the basis for a two-state solution,” said Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha, an Israeli nonprofit that monitors access to the Gaza Strip. “Palestinians in Gaza have asked to be part of a Palestinian state, not a satellite of Egypt.”
Despite the drama of Egypt’s announcement of the border opening, many see the actual relaxation last Saturday as only an incremental easing of border restrictions. The delay in farther-reaching changes may reflect Egyptian awareness of the risk that Israel will seek to cut ties with Gaza and leave Egypt responsible.
“It’s not a sea change,” said Bashi. “Egypt is still engaging Israel’s security concerns.”
But Egypt is already under pressure from Hamas to go further.
“Terminals around the Gaza Strip, which are controlled by the Israelis, are still closed,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri on Saturday. “The siege still exists. We want from our Arab brothers, especially Egypt, that they should play a role in breaking the siege on the Gaza Strip. It is true that this is an Israeli siege, but there are responsibilities of Arab brothers, first and foremost Egypt, to easing the trade exchange.”
Badly needed fuel and construction materials are still routed through the underground tunnels because Israel limits imports from its side of the barrier. Meanwhile, Israel continues to ban Gaza’s exports.
Despite Egypt’s shift away from helping Israel to enforce a blockade meant to maintain pressure on Hamas, a top Israeli defense official said the new border policy wouldn’t necessarily lead to a decline in security. Even when Egypt was cooperating with Israel’s blockade, weapons were flowing illegally to Gaza though dozens of tunnels under the border.
Israeli officials are already trying to use the opening of the crossing for public diplomacy, arguing that a planned new flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists with supplies for Gaza is a political provocation rather than a humanitarian mission.
“This illustrates to the world that Gaza is not under an Israeli siege,” said cabinet minister Dan Meridor in an interview with Israel Radio. “Gaza is not under closure, because it is open to Egypt. Precisely on the eve of the planned flotillas, which claim that Gaza is surrounded and besieged, it is important that the world hear that Gaza is not surrounded.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said that the new opening to Egypt foists new responsibilities on the Egyptian regime for Gaza.
“This definitely changes the situation,” said the Israeli diplomat. “If, around the world, they are talking about humanitarian access [to Gaza], Egypt now has the only fully open crossing.”