On February 9, Egypt opened the Rafah border with the Gaza strip “indefinitely” and “until further notice,” according to an Egyptian security source. This move comes after a two-day negotiation session between opposing Palestinian parties Hamas and Fatah in Cairo in regards to the legislative and presidential elections due to be held in Gaza and the West Bank in May and June 2021 – the first free elections since the 2006 presidential elections that catalyzed the Battle of Gaza. The parties agreed to have an ‘electoral court’ to arbitrate any disputes resulting from the election process or the results of the elections. Only uniformed Palestinian police will have a presence at the elections, and they will regulate election sites lawfully. The elections are expected to go ahead despite the fragile nature of peace in the region.
Although more than 4500 people have crossed the Rafah border since its opening, there is much uncertainty about the recent border opening. A vendor near Rafah border whose living depends on the opening of the Rafah border emphasizes that “as long as there are disputes, the crossing will continue to open and close.” There is considerable uncertainty among Egyptian authorities about the status of the border. According to AFP news agency, an Egyptian security source believes “this isn’t a routine or normal opening. This is the first time in years that the Rafah border crossing is opening indefinitely.”
However, the opening of the Rafah border comes in a series of seemingly permanent moves by Egyptian and Palestinian authorities that aim to create a suitable atmosphere for peaceful negotiations between Hamas and Fatah. According to Al Jazeera, the opening of the border is considered to be “an incentive for reconciliation between the main Palestinian forces [Hamas and Fatah].” The ultimate aim is to diplomatically persuade both factions to hold peaceful elections in Gaza and the West Bank in order to unify the region under a single elected government. The importance of this, is that it will undoubtedly reinstate a period of negotiation and cooperation between Hamas, Fatah, Egypt and Israel to secure peace in the region and to confront other pressing issues such as the COVID-19 Pandemic.
This is particularly important as the Gaza strip’s Rafah border with Egypt has been the strip’s only border to the outside world that is not controlled by Israel since the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. The Gaza strip houses approximately 2 million Palestinians and is often their only path to critical resources such as health care, food and humanitarian aid. In agreement with Israel, Egyptian authorities officially closed the border in 2007 in an attempt to stabilize the region after the Battle of Gaza, which saw Hamas militants forcefully remove Fatah leaders from their positions and take over the Gaza strip after Fatah refused to recognize a Hamas victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Since 2007, the Rafah border has been sporadically open only a few days at a time to allow Palestinians access to medical care, education and other resources. Recently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the border has been closely monitored and closed more often to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in the strip.
The opening of the Rafah border amidst peaceful negotiations between Hamas, Fatah and Egypt is a hopeful sign of cooperation in the time of an ongoing health crisis in the region. The unprecedented nature of the most recent border opening points to the willingness of key parties in the region to shift policies to protect the health of Palestinians and to slowly reinstate peace after 15 excruciating years of violence, instability and destruction.