November 1, 2023
Egypt opts for hard ‘realpolitik’ in the Gaza war. It temporarily opens the border with Gaza to allow foreigners in. However, for ordinary Palestinians the gate remains closed.
More than three weeks after the start of the Gaza war, the total blockade of the Palestinian enclave came to an end on Wednesday. Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing to allow the passage of some 450 citizens with foreign passports. Ambulances also picked up more than 80 wounded people in the Gaza Strip for care in an Egyptian field hospital near the border.
After a few hours the border post closed again. According to Western diplomats, hundreds more foreigners and Palestinians with dual nationality could leave for Egypt in the coming days. Palestinian employees of international organizations are also reportedly on the evacuation list. Tens of thousands of people have arrived at the border in recent weeks.
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The border opened after Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian group Hamas reached an agreement on Tuesday. This happened after difficult negotiations mediated by Qatar and under the watchful eye of the United States. Qatar has positioned itself as a mediator from the start of the Gaza war. The Gulf state has good contacts with Hamas.
The Rafah border post has become a crucial lifeline for the 2.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It is the only border crossing with the enclave that is not under Israeli control. And it is also the only way to bring humanitarian aid to the area and allow civilians to escape. Because Israel adamantly refuses to open its border posts with Gaza.
After Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2007, Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade.
As a result, all the pressure has been on Egypt in recent weeks. But the regime of President Abdel Fateh al-Sisi was not eager to open the border. The distrust for Hamas – the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, detested by Sisi – runs particularly deep. After Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2007, Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade.
The Egyptian leader also wants to avoid importing the Palestinian conflict at all costs. He fears that Hamas militants would mingle with the refugees, causing the Sinai desert to become a base for attacks on Israel. Moreover, the region has been dealing with jihadist insurgents for years.
Sisi stood firm and emphasized that Egypt is not responsible for the humanitarian drama in the Gaza Strip. Let Israel accommodate the Palestinians in the Negev desert, he said recently. Jordan’s King Abdullah also categorically refused to offer shelter to Palestinian refugees. Both Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel.
Egypt says it is committed to providing humanitarian aid. It took two weeks for the first aid convoy to enter the Gaza Strip on October 21. Over the past 10 days, 250 trucks came and went, while according to the UN at least 100 are needed every day. The Egyptians point the finger at Israel, which carries out drastic inspections of the aid convoys.
Sisi is caught between the need for tough realpolitik – necessary to prevent destabilization – and a population that demands that he do more to alleviate Palestinian suffering. Especially in the run-up to the presidential elections in a month, Sisi wants to keep the peace. And so the Rafah border gate remains closed for ordinary Palestinian citizens.