Rising tension between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas over the past few days has led P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas to escalate the conflict with Hamas and order the removal of P.A. border officers from the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. On Jan., members of the Hamas crossings unit moved into the Rafah Crossing and took over the former positions of Abbas’s officers.
The Rafah crossing is the only land exit from the Gaza Strip into the Arab world. The crossing was staffed by P.A. staff for several months under the framework of understandings for reconciliation between Hamas and the P.A. achieved through Egyptian mediation, which enabled the opening of the crossing on a continuous basis and an easing of the humanitarian crisis faced by the residents of the Gaza Strip.
Abbas is again putting pressure on the Gaza Strip on its most sensitive point. It is clear that total closure of the crossing is only a matter of time. Egypt is not prepared to allow Hamas to operate the border crossing on the Palestinian side of Gaza. According to the agreements, the P.A. is supposed to operate it in its capacity as the sole, exclusive representative of the Palestinian people. It is therefore reasonable that Egypt will totally close it shortly, which will again raise the question of the humanitarian crisis suffered by the more than 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza.
Egypt has already announced that on Jan. 8, it will allow the movement of goods and people in one direction only—from Egypt into Gaza.
On Jan. 7, the Hamas-sponsored “March of Return” campaign headquarters issued a notice calling upon the Palestinian administration to rescind the withdrawal of the officers from the Rafah crossing, which will lead to the closure of the crossing and the intensification of the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
The notice stated that closure of the crossing means a return to all “popular means” (of protest) and an explosion of the situation. It also called upon Egypt to intervene in order to change the situation and to continue its attempts to achieve unity and to open the crossing, which serves as “a breathing space” for the 2.3 million Palestinians living in Gaza.
Hamas perceives Abbas’s removing P.A. officers from Rafah as a deliberate intention to bring about the closure of all crossings, also cutting off Gaza from the West Bank through the Israeli crossings, and as a way of implementing U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century.”
Hamas is threatening to renew acts of violence along the Gaza Strip to put pressure on Israel so that it will in turn press the Palestinian Authority to return its officers to the Rafah crossing.
In any case, an escalation occurred during the first week of January 2019 along the border fence, when a booby-trapped model drone carrying a large explosive charge was sent from Gaza into Israel and a rocket was fired towards Ashkelon.
In response, the IDF attacked Hamas positions in southern and northern Gaza. The attack was measured, according to instructions from the political establishment, but it is now clear that Abbas has added a dangerous, volatile element to the fragile situation in Gaza. Closing Rafah may intensify the explosion of the new situation along the Gaza border.
This danger could lead to the collapse of the understandings on calm between Israel and Hamas that have been in force until now.
The first achievement of the ‘March of Return’
The opening of the Rafah crossing in August 2018 was the first Palestinian achievement of the “March of Return” campaign that was launched on March 30, 2018.
Egypt opened the Rafah crossing on a consistent basis at the beginning of the month of Ramadan 2018 in accordance with orders from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to ease the humanitarian crisis suffered by the residents of Gaza.
Before Ramadan, Egypt would only open the crossing once every three or four months for a three-day period.
Egypt opened the crossing on an ongoing basis to absorb and contain the popular fury of the Gazan street, which is the result of the embargo and the “March of Return” campaign. The working assumption of Egyptian intelligence is that the humanitarian pressure should be eased to prevent an explosion in the Gaza Strip.
According to Hamas elements, the crossing was reopened after an agreement was reached between Egyptian intelligence and the Hamas leadership to halt Hamas support for the ISIS offshoot in northern Sinai, which is involved in terror activities against the Egyptian government and its security forces.
Egypt is afraid that closing the crossing will result in heavy pressure in the Gaza Strip, which will lead to tens of thousands of Palestinians bursting through the border with Egypt and their mass entry into the Sinai Peninsula in order to obtain food products and gas, as occurred in 2008. This could cause a high number of casualties because the Egyptian army would use force in its attempt to prevent the breach of the border fence between Egypt and Gaza.
The measure that Abbas took removing his men from Rafah may snowball and destroy what Hamas has achieved through its “March of Return” campaign, which led to the opening of the Rafah border crossing and to the resumption of violent events at the Gaza border.
Israel’s interest is to prevent a deterioration of the security situation. In the meantime, Israel has put a stop, until further notice, to the entry of Qatari funds to the tune of $15 million into Gaza, which was to be used to pay the salaries of Hamas officials following this recent escalation, and also as a way to exert pressure on Hamas. It is doubtful whether this will help. Hamas is not interested in a large military confrontation in Gaza, but it is trying to use threats and rocket raids as a means to get Israel to put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to rescind its sanctions on Gaza.
Hopes are pinned upon Egypt and that El-Sisi can manage to persuade Abbas to retract his decision regarding the Rafah crossing, or that El-Sisi will agree to temporary Hamas control of the crossing so that it can continue to operate and prevent any worsening of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Abbas is trying, through new sanctions, to push Hamas into a military confrontation with Israel. He is concerned that Hamas is attempting to undermine his rule in the West Bank, and he is trying to preempt this by agitating the residents of Gaza against it.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.