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Egypt Reopens Rafah Crossing

Hannah Schaeffer

Egypt partially reopened the Rafah crossing from Gaza on for four hours Wednesday, a week after closing the border due to a deadly attack on Egyptian military headquarters in the Sinai. Buses took 100 passengers into Egypt while hundreds of others waited outside the gates for a chance to cross. The Egyptian military’s decision to reopen the border crossing with the Palestinian enclave may have been prompted by a request by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to let students and people in need of medical attention pass.

According to Egyptian officials, the Rafah crossing is closed out of concerns for security , amid violent unrest in the Sinai Peninsula. Members of Palestinian Jihad and Hamas fighters have used the tunnels to pass through, smuggle arms and carry out attacks on the Egyptian military and police. In response, Egypt’s government has taken steps toward creating a buffer zone along the border essentially isolating Gaza, shutting down not only the travel crossing but also hundreds of underground tunnels connecting the Sinai and the Gaza strip.

Egyptian police blocking Rafah crossing into Gaza, May 18, 2013. (Photo: AFP)

Egypt has shut the Rafah crossing three times since July, reducing traffic 75% from the average 40,000/month crossing during President Morsi’s rule. There are two sets of crossings out of Gaza — through Israel and through Egypt. In June more than 5,700 Palestinians crossed into Israel, including those seeking medical attention; a similar number crossed in May. But closing the Egyptian crossing has heightened the feeling of Palestinian isolation, as well as cutting Hamas off from its Sinai arms smuggling routes.

Gaza relies on Egypt for an estimated 80 percent of its fuel needs, but no fuel has entered the Palestinian territory for several days. This has created electricity blackouts and lines outside gas stations. According to the Hamas government, it also threatens to cause a humanitarian crisis, and has hurt Gaza’s economy, with construction projects, hospitals, and sewage processing stations all needing fuel to operate. Prices for consumer items have risen significantly. In addition, dozens of Palestinian students protested in front of the crossing in Gaza on Monday, expressing frustrations over difficulty in reaching their Egyptian Universities.

Hamas is actively seeking to calm tension with the Egyptian army, in the hope of easing the crisis. Mousa Abu Marzouk, the deputy chairmen of Hamas’ political bureau, publicly apologized to the Egyptian army in an interview on Egyptian TV for “any affront,” an action that caused some angry recriminations from other Hamas officials. Hamas has also reduced the intensity of statements warning about the Egyptian army conducting a military operation against the Gaza strip, and Palestinians have conducted peaceful sit-ins and protests in front of the closed Rafah crossing.