On Saturday, the famous Rafah border crossing between Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate and the Gaza Strip will be opened, with most Palestinians not needing visas to cross. The action represents a substantial shift in Egypt’s foreign policy, one that will be quite popular on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. The Egyptians had been tacit supporters of Israel’s extremely controversial blockade of Gaza, which (coupled with the Sadat-era peace treaty) drew accusations that Egypt had subverted its foreign policy to the needs of Israel. Despite hysterics from many commentators, the new military regime in Egypt would be insane to abrogate the peace treaty and attack Israel, for Egypt’s military has always been a political institution and not a thoroughly professional fighting force.
The blockade policy, however, was more difficult to politically justify. The blockade ruined Gaza’s already weak economy and made reconstruction after the 2008-2009 Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead), which destroyed huge numbers of Gazan homes, very difficult. This prompted a very negative reaction and a rise in anti-Semitic incidents throughout the world. Mubarak’s Egypt had joined in the blockade because of its intense fear of the Muslim Brotherhood–Hamas is a Brotherhood offshoot that, like the MB proper, had little affection for the old regime. Hamas’ ties to Iran are also unpopular in Cairo, which had no relations with Tehran until just a few years ago. The fall of Mubarak, and the MB’s quietism, have removed some of those obstacles. Opening the border is a politically wise step for the military government. They want to contain the recent series of protests, including several at the Israeli embassy that turned violent. They also want to regain credibility after their contentious crackdown that forestalled the recent communal near-conflict. Ending a wildly unpopular policy is thus a very natural move, one that has been widely expected.
I’ve done a lot of research on the security problems of the North Sinai, so I can testify that the problems on the Egypt-Gaza border are real. Palestinian and Bedouin criminal networks run a massive array of sea and land smuggling routes, including the infamous tunnels that supplied Gaza with everything from daily necessities to weapons to cars to zoo animals during the height of the blockade. A parallel array, operated by Bedouins, runs into Israel through the Negev, bringing drugs, migrant workers, and sex slaves. Hamas operatives have naturally been seen in the area, and Hezbollah allegedly had a notable presence, including a Suez Canal monitoring station. Indigenous terror groups have also formed up, conducting bombings on tourist sites and repeatedly destroying a vital natural gas pipeline that fuels fourteen percent of Israeli and eighty percent of Jordanian electricity generation.
There are thus serious risks for Egypt, Israel, and Palestine present in the North Sinai. The presence of radical groups on both sides of the Rafah crossing partly explains the Egyptian stipulation that men between eighteen and forty years of age must still get Egyptian visas to cross (the rest of the explanation is that they do not want these men expanding their already problematic labor surplus). However, many of the problems of the North Sinai stem from Egypt’s failure to integrate the Bedouin into their society. It is risky to assert that the Bedouin extremists and drug smugglers will be more appealing to disaffected Gazan youths than Hamas or another Palestinian group.
What is more likely to happen is a reduction in smuggling activity. When the blockade was at its toughest, all sorts of everyday needs were brought in through the tunnels at significant markups. However, after the flotilla incident, Israel began to loosen restrictions, closing many tunnels more effectively than precision munitions ever had. Gaza’s economy was still unnaturally weak, but the situation was much less desperate. Opening Rafah Crossing will make the smuggling of legal goods unprofitable. There will thus be a reduction in the activity of these illegal groups in the border areas, a positive step for security. This will all be a blow for Hamas–they charged a tax on tunnel operators, reportedly earning an incredible $200 million a year. That revenue stream will now dry up.
Illegal and violent activity will continue to trouble the North Sinai. Much of the weapons smuggling in the area feeds Hamas, and the opening of the border will not affect that–indeed, the reductions in security in the area will likely make it a bit easier. Hamas’ smuggling capability is centered on private tunnels, not on the Rafah crossing. I’m not sure where the minor Salafist groups that oppose Hamas (like the one that killed an Italian peace activist a few weeks ago) get their weaponry, but if they are getting it through the tunnels, they may have to pay even higher premiums. Hamas will thus have weaker opponents, but be weakened itself.
The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated pieces of land on earth, and it has no reason to be. The Strip has very weak economic fundamentals–it cannot, for instance, engage in the agriculture seen in the West Bank. The blockade brought this already-struggling economy to the edge. The blockade is now all but over. Gaza’s economy will grow, but unemployment will remain at dangerously high levels. The Gaza question has been passed to future generations. It remains unanswered.