Egyptian FM Nabil ElAraby says unity was needed for Palestinian state recognition

According to a report in the Jerusalem Post here about the surprise announcement on Wednesday of a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah [for more information, see our post on our sister blog, here], “Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby said the agreement was aimed at paving the way for the Palestinians to seek UN recognition in September of an independent state on the 1967 lines. ‘Palestinian divisions can’t continue while efforts are being made to ensure recognition of a Palestinian state’, Elaraby said, adding that he planned to visit Ramallah soon for talks with Palestinian Authority officials on this and other matters”.

Nabil ElAraby’s appointment as Egypt’s new post-Mubarak Foreign Minister is one of the most interesting developments in the whole Arab Spring.

The Guardian newspaper published an article this week by Jack Schenker that argued that even though Egypt was putatively handling reconciliation negotiations between Israel and Hamas for years, “Israel and Washington had no genuine desire to see a unified Palestinian government, and Egypt’s thinking followed suit – until, that is, nationwide protests erupted against the regime in late January, and Suleiman was promoted to vice-president in a failed attempt to shore up Mubarak’s position. Given the country’s internal chaos, few expected his replacement, Murad Muwafi, to devote much energy to the issue of Palestinian factionalism, but in fact Muwafi took the issue seriously – so seriously, in fact, that no fewer than five Israeli delegations were dispatched to his offices in the space of a few weeks in an effort to ward off any unity deal. Muwafi’s stance was shaped partly by the ascendancy of the career diplomat Nabil el-Arabi to the position of foreign minister in Egypt’s interim government. Arabi had a reputation for saying some decidedly undiplomatic things regarding Egypt’s close alliance with Israel under presidents Mubarak and Sadat, and as part of an internal battle to wrest control of some policy issues away from the secret services – where they had drifted under Mubarak – and back under the auspices of the foreign ministry, he began making loud and relatively critical noises about Israel, marking an important shift in rhetoric. ‘It is time to stop managing the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, it’s time to end the conflict” he said earlier this month. Egypt’s foreign minister will now travel to Amman and Ramallah next month to continue promoting the deal and, although few will admit it publicly, both Hamas and Fatah are optimistic that the new Egyptian government will do a better job of resisting Israeli pressure to scupper the agreement than Suleiman and Mubarak would have managed”. This article is published here.

Twenty-four hours after the announcement of the reconciliation agreement, ElAraby said in an interview with Al-Jazeera on Thursday that “The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza will open on a permanent basis within seven to ten days … He said during the interview that steps would be taken in order to alleviate the ‘suffering of the Palestinian people’.” These remarks to Al-Jazeera were published in the Jerusalem Post here.

The Israeli Project (TIP) sent out an email on Friday worrying that “Egypt plans to open its border with Gaza on a permanent basis, allowing in people and goods through Rafah without supervision by Israeli authorities, Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi said Friday”. It cites as its reference a report in Haaretz by correspondent Avi Issacharoff published here — which said that this would be a violation of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, finally hammered out in November 2005, two months after Ariel Sharon’s unilateral “disengagement”, which set up a force of EU monitoring personnel known as EUBAM, who were also under Israeli supervision.

The agreement, however, was barely implemented because of constant Israeli closures of the Rafah crossing [mostly, Israel did this by telling the EUBAM people to stay home].

However, the Israel Project email noted that “Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Menha Barkhoum said details of the Rafah opening were still being hammered out but that ‘We’ll open the crossing point for individuals in a continuous way’.”

Here is a graphic of the Gaza Strip sent along with the email from The Israel Project:
graphic by The Israel Project

The straight line in the lower left-hand corner of the Gaza Strip is the twice-destroyed-by-Israeli-bombing Yasser Arafat International Airport. The Kerem Shalom crossing which Israel has always preferred, despite all Palestinian objections, is just over border at the point where Gaza, the Israeli Negev desert, and the Egyptian Sinai all meet.

It is from Kerem Shalom that the Israeli military and security agencies carried out, by real time closed-circuit TV or video monitoring, their supervision of all activities at the Rafah crossing, including their monitoring of EUBAM…

Under the 2005 Agreement, however, the Rafah crossing has been closed far, far more than it was ever open…

IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit was seized very near Kerem Shalom in a cross-border raid by Palestinian militants in June 2006, shortly after a similar operation by Hizballah along the Israeli-Lebanese border to the north which sparked the summer 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon (which is called, in Israel, the Second Lebanese War).

Shalit has been held in captivity, presumably in Gaza, since then — even during the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009.

UPDATE: There was a report in the London-based Arabic-language Al-Hayat paper on Saturday, picked up by correspondent Avi Issacharoff in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz here, that “Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabri is in Egypt for talks with current Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate Murad Muwafi about abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, London-based Arab daily Al-Hayat reported on Saturday. According to the report, Jabri has been in Egypt for several days, during which he held talks with Muwafi about the stalled negotiations between Israel and the Hamas for Shalit’s release … Negotiations have stalled numerous times. Hamas last year accused Israel of changing its stance over points to which it had already agreed. Hamas sources have said that Israel is delaying the completion of the Shalit deal by refusing to release 50 Hamas officials it holds in its jails. Speaking to Israel Radio, a top Hamas official refused to comment on the report”.

The Israeli human rights organization GISHA, which has led a sustained challenge in the Israeli court system to the Israeli military-administered sanctions against Gaza, commented Friday that “Since Israel closed Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters and all but closed Erez Crossing to Palestinians, Rafah Crossing has become the gateway to the outside world for 1.5 million Palestinian residents of Gaza. Crossing via Erez (on the border between Gaza and Israel) is limited to ‘extraordinary humanitarian cases, especially urgent medical cases’, preventing Palestinians from traveling between Gaza and the West Bank.   Rafah was closed following the capture of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006 and remained mostly closed until June 2010, when Egypt opened it in the wake of the flotilla incident. Between June 2010 and January 2011, 19,000 people per month on average crossed Rafah in both directions, 47% of the number of people who crossed monthly in the first half of 2006.   Today, passage through Rafah is limited to holders of foreign citizenship or residence, holders of visas (including students studying abroad) and those seeking medical attention or study in Egypt. Crossing for Palestinians is limited to those listed in the Israeli-controlled population registry. Since the regime change in Egypt, the number of people permitted to leave Gaza via Rafah has been limited to 300 per day. The crossing is currently open five days per week. Since the 2005 ‘disengagement’, goods have not been permitted to pass via Rafah, except for humanitarian assistance which Egypt occasionally permits through Rafah“.

GISHA’s Executive Director. Attorney Sari Bashi added, in the response to news that Egypt will open the Rafah crossing, that “Gisha expresses hope that Egypt will expand the ability of Gaza residents to travel abroad via Rafah Crossing, which has become Gaza’s gateway to the world, in light of Israel’s closure of Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters and restrictions on travel via Erez Crossing.  Gisha notes the need also to permit passage of people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank, recognized by Israel as a single territorial unit whose integrity is the basis for a two-state solution.   Gisha notes that since June 2007, Israel has prevented Gaza residents from transferring goods for sale to Israel or the West Bank, as part of a policy to separate Gaza from the West Bank. Security concerns cannot explain the ban, as Gaza residents are permitted to sell limited quantities of agricultural products to Europe – via Israel and Israeli security checks. Gaza, Israel and the West Bank are part of a single customs envelope, in which free trade is to take place and in which customs regulations are to be uniform.  Any arrangement for permitting goods to cross via Rafah should consider the need to maintain the unity of the Palestinian economy, existing in Gaza and the West Bank”.

UPDATE TWO: Haaretz reported on Saturday here that “Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces General Sami Anan warned Israel against interfering with Egypt’s plan to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza on a permanent basis, saying it was not a matter of Israel’s concern, [Israeli] Army Radio reported on Saturday”.

According to a report in Ahramonine, Anan did this on his Facebook page. Ahram online reported: “Israel does not have the right to interfere in Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah border crossing, says Sami Annan, the chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces. ‘Israel does not have the right to interfere in Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah border. This is an Egyptian-Palestinian issue’, wrote Anan on his Facebook page. Anan also thanked the Egyptian intelligence for the role it played in the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas”. This is posted here.

UPDATE THREE: The Wall Street Journal (online) has reported here that Israel is vexed by these Egyptian moves: “Israeli officials said they were seeking to clarify Mr. Al Araby’s remarks with Egypt. Mindful of the instability, government officials have been reluctant to openly criticize the new government”…

The WSJ report noted that “In January 2008, tens of thousands of Palestinians broke down the border fence at Rafah and crossed into Egypt to buy goods kept out by the Israeli siege, but Egypt eventually resealed the border”,  but that “In recent years, Egypt and Israel have cooperated to fight the tunnel trade.  And at the end of 2009, Egypt even began building an underground wall [ n.b.- with U.S. help] to block the subterranean commerce.   Egypt has kept the border closed out of concern that an open border could saddle Cairo with responsibility for security in Gaza … Last year Cairo lengthened the hours of the border crossing in response to international pressure after Israel’s deadly interception of a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists”.

But, as GISHA complained, the extended opening hours were not nearly enough.

Bashi later told Time Magazine’s Karl Vick “If Egypt wanted to be more generous, they’d go back to what the situation was in 2005 and 2006”. Vick noted that “In those years, any Palestinian with an Israeli-approved ID could come and go through Rafah. But, Bashi says, ‘we don’t know what the Egyptians have in mind’.” This is posted here.

The WSJ article quoted an Israeli official as saying: “In the past, despite the effort of the government of Egypt to prevent it happening, Hamas was able to build in Gaza a formidable military terrorist machine”…

According to the WSJ report, a senior Israeli official said on Friday: “We are troubled by recent developments in Egypt … These developments can affect Israel’s national security at a strategic level”.