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Exodus from Gaza and international aid place Rafah crossing at the epicenter of Israel-Hamas conflict

The border crossing with Egypt is the only one not controlled by Israel, which has bombed it at least three times. Cairo fears a huge influx of refugees and wants security guarantees to reopen it for humanitarian access

Israel-Hamas War
Palestinian residents, some with foreign nationality, wait to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border post.NurPhoto (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The intense aerial bombardment and the “complete siege” policy launched by Israel on Gaza after the armed wing of the Palestinian movement Hamas launched an attack on Israeli territory on October 7 has turned a remote spot in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula into the center of global attention. The Rafah border crossing, located in southern Gaza, directly connects Gaza to Egypt and is the only entry and exit point not controlled by Israel, making it the sole route through which the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian enclave can be bypassed and emergency humanitarian aid sent to the more than two million civilians trapped there.

Early last week, Israel shelled the Palestinian terminal of the crossing three times in 24 hours, disrupting its normal operation. Since then, Egypt has been negotiating with Israel, the U.S., the U.N. and Qatar for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to provide security guarantees for its reopening to deliver humanitarian assistance. Under normal conditions, the Rafah crossing is administered by Cairo and Hamas Interior Ministry officials, but it is mainly the Egyptian and Israeli authorities that exercise strictest control over the movement of people and goods.

A convoy of trucks loaded with humanitarian aid, one of them with a photo of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, wait to cross into Gaza.
A convoy of trucks loaded with humanitarian aid, one of them with a photo of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, wait to cross into Gaza. KHALED DESOUKI (AFP)

The crossing is of great concern to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who fears a massive exodus of Palestinian refugees fleeing the bombings and the land invasion that Israel, according to his government, is preparing imminently. Additionally, on the Palestinian side of the crossing, there are hundreds of Gazans and citizens of third countries, especially Americans, waiting for the border to open so that they can leave the enclave.

In an attempt to press for its opening, and to be prepared in case an agreement is finally forged, Egypt last week prepared the airport in the capital of North Sinai province, Al Arish, around 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Rafah, to receive international humanitarian aid shipments. Countries such as Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, as well as organizations including as the Red Crescent and the World Health Organization (WHO), have already sent hundreds of tons of basic necessities destined for Gaza. But for now, dozens of truckloads of supplies, carrying mainly food, water and medicine, remain stuck on the Egyptian side of the border waiting for the green light to cross.

What role Israeli officials would have in the mechanism governing the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza remains unclear. The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights said Monday that Israel’s insistence on inspecting all trucks before they enter Gaza was at least one of the reasons its implementation initially failed. The plan that has been put forward so far involves approving a geographically delimited ceasefire zone inside Gaza so that aid arriving in the enclave can be distributed. Cairo has stated that it will only allow the exit of foreigners residing in the enclave if at the same time trucks are allowed to enter.

A child waits next to his family's suitcases to cross into Egypt through the Rafah crossing.
A child waits next to his family's suitcases to cross into Egypt through the Rafah crossing.IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA (REUTERS)

Movement through the Rafah crossing — which was opened in 1982 after Israel withdrew from Sinai as part of the peace agreement it signed with Egypt three years earlier — has fluctuated greatly over the past decade depending on the political context; it remains a sensitive issue for the Egyptian authorities, not least because of the presence of Hamas. Between mid-2012 and 2013, coinciding with the presidency in Egypt of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood — which shares the ideology of Hamas — the crossing was open for 341 days and recorded intense activity, according to U.N. data. In contrast, between 2014 and 2017, coinciding with staunch Brotherhood opponent El-Sisi’s first years in power, Rafah remained closed for almost 300 days a year on average. The situation only started to improve from May 2018 onwards, at a time when Gaza was undergoing a serious humanitarian and political crisis.

Since then, the Rafah crossing has operated more regularly, with the exception of closures imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite this, the criteria imposed by Egypt for people wishing to travel through the crossing remain strict and the waiting time for processing the permit is often lengthy, according to the Israeli human rights organization Gisha, which monitors freedom of movement for Palestinians. Israel, for its part, often prohibits people leaving Gaza through Rafah from re-entering through the Erez crossing between the Strip and Israel, which presents an added obstacle.

In addition, the vast, desert-like northern Sinai, separated from the rest of Egypt by the Suez Canal, is a completely militarized region and access is severely restricted, even for the press. Egypt has been waging a bitter war in the province for years against the local branch of Islamic State, which has recruited many Gazan members and whose momentum has only been slowed over the last three years by an extensive joint counter-terrorism campaign waged by the Egyptian army and security forces and their tribal allies.

A woman and three children wait next to the border wall for the Rafah crossing to open on October 16.
A woman and three children wait next to the border wall for the Rafah crossing to open on October 16.Mohammed Talatene (DPA vía Europa Press)

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