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Writing about the Rafah crossing, after the spectacular success of the Egyptian revolution in ousting Hosni Mubarak,
brings back the horrific memory of the deposed dictator’s regime. There were high expectations amongst the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza earlier this year after former Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Arabi described the Mubarak government’s complicity with Israel in besieging Gaza as “disgraceful.”
This was followed on 29 May by an official announcement by the Egyptian government that the Rafah crossing would be permanently opened. Palestinians with passports would be allowed to cross into Egypt every day from 9am to 5pm, except for Fridays and holidays. Palestinian women and children would be able to leave Gaza without restrictions, while men between the ages of 18 and 40 would have to obtain visas to enter Egypt. Despite these conditions, and even though the free flow of goods and materials would not be allowed, Palestinians in Gaza welcomed this move.
This decision, however, was implemented for only two days. It was retracted without any formal announcement and the number now allowed to leave Gaza each day has been reduced to 300. No reason has been given for this change.
Ordinary people in Gaza remain the victims of this political about-turn with their right to freedom of movement curtailed yet again, with no indication of when they can expect to travel freely.
No justification for closure
International law is sometimes cited selectively, even by some Palestine solidarity activists, to justify the closure of the Rafah crossing. They argue that Gaza is not an independent state and that since the internationally recognized, Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority signed the 2005 Rafah Agreement on Movement and Access, only that entity has the right to oversee movement through the crossing on the Palestinian side.
Even Israel’s mainstream liberal media is lecturing the Palestinians of Gaza on what is best for them. The Israeli journalist Amira Hass is another critic of calls to open the Rafah crossing, locating herself in opposition to prominent international signatories to the International Campaign to Open the Rafah Crossing, such as South Africans Desmond Tutu and Ronnie Kasrils as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Territories, Richard Falk. World-renowned writers Alaa Al Aswani, Ahdaf Soueif, Tariq Ali, Radwa Ashour, Mike Marqusee and Benjamin Zephania – to mention but a few – and major international solidarity groups and trade unions have also backed the call to open Rafah.
Hass’s argument is that the call to open the crossing permanently and unconditionally is “another self-described militant initiative that is a double-edged sword” because it is not combined with the demand for freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank — as if the opening of the crossing necessitates the closure of all other crossings between Gaza and Israel.
Confusing tactic with strategy allows Hass to ignore the simple fact that these six crossings are totally controlled by trigger-happy Israeli soldiers. For her, “the apparently progressive and militant initiative” to open the Rafah crossing turns the cutoff of Gaza from the West Bank into an “unchallenged reality.”
To a supporter of the two-state solution, this conclusion is of course valid. To not be able to see the immense amount of suffering caused by the closure of the crossing, and ignoring that Palestinians in Gaza currently have no other exit, boggles the mind.
Most importantly, Hass seems to even ignore the fact that the call to open the crossing permanently and unconditionally was issued by Gaza-based civil society and grassroots organizations. Meanwhile, Egyptian revolutionaries and grassroots organizations supported the call as soon as it was issued.
Rereading international law
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own,
and to return to his country.
International law is not against the opening of the Rafah crossing, and even if it was, it would be up to us, ordinary people, civil society and grassroots organizations, to create a new reality on the ground.
But international law is very clear that in cases of emergency, such as during the siege and massacres in Gaza, neighboring countries, such as Egypt, should open their borders. Bosnia is a good recent example where neighboring European countries heeded calls to open their borders for Bosnians in accordance with international law. One can go further and say that any government official imposing, or helping, in the imposition of this deadly siege on Gaza should be tried for war crimes. This question should be addressed to the present Secretary General of the Arab League, Nabil el-Arabi, as an expert on international law, and because his statements on Egypt’s relations with Israel gave unfulfilled hope to the besieged Palestinians in Gaza.
The reality is that Israel, both before and after 2005, is the only power that decides when to open the crossing and how to interpret international law, making sure that its own interests and that of the US and the West in general are secured.
International law and agreements can be used, and defended, as a framework for struggle where Palestinian rights are guaranteed and protected (such as UN Resolution 194, which calls for the Palestinian refugees’ right of return) and if such use supports resistance and national liberation. My understanding is that international law should serve freedom, equality and human rights.
The restriction of Palestinian movement at the Rafah crossing is, however, a political decision since the Palestinian national unity government, which survived for a short period of time in 2007, representing almost all Palestinian political organizations, indicated to both Egypt and the Quartet (the US, European Union, Russia and the UN) that it accepts the 2005 Rafah crossing principles. This Palestinian endorsement of the principles was never accepted by the Egyptian regime or the Quartet, resulting in the current stalemate that has led directly to the deaths of more than 650 Palestinians in Gaza who were unable to access needed medical treatment.
It is worth nothing that prior to 1967, under an Egyptian administration, the Gaza Strip had no controlled borders with Egypt, and Gazans were able to drive through the Sinai up to the Suez Canal without being stopped at all. That freedom of movement was never used as a pretext to deprive Palestinians in Gaza of the right to struggle to return to the villages and towns from which they had been ethnically cleansed. Gaza was still considered part of historic Palestine. The same principle applies today regarding calls to open Rafah; to open Rafah doesn’t mean the acceptance of the rest of Israel’s closure regime.
The problem with the mainstream (mis)interpretation of international law is that it transforms the whole Palestine question into a decontextualized, postmodern language game. The international law referred to is viewed as ahistorical and takes into consideration the interpretation of the powerful party, Israel. This discourse ignores that Israel has colonized not only the land, but also history and the discourse that represents it. As historian Ilan Pappe says in a different context, Israel has employed its powerful apparatus to propagate its official narrative.
We Palestinians are engaged in a national liberation struggle and the context in Gaza, especially during and after the massacre, requires a complete paradigm shift in our understanding of the tools of struggle and the political program that is to be used. It is the time of people power as evidenced on the streets of Cairo, Damascus, Sana’a, Manama and Tunis. The people of Egypt with the Palestinians of Gaza can open the crossing permanently and unconditionally, regardless of what Israel and its backers in the White House and 10 Downing Street think. Their man in Sharm El-Sheikh is behind bars, thanks to the sacrifices and courage of ordinary people like Khaled Said and Ahmed al-Shahat and the men, women and children of Gaza who managed to tear down the cement walls on the Palestinian-Egyptian borders twice.
There are lessons to learn from Gaza 2009. We have lost faith in the so-called international community that claims to uphold international law, as their representatives such as the UN, EU and the Arab League by and large have remained silent in the face of atrocities committed by apartheid Israel. They are therefore on the side of Israel.
So what if Israel declares Gaza a “hostile entity?” The message from officials citing international law to justify the closure of the crossing, and some misinformed activists and journalists, is a mechanical interpretation of the law that does not take human lives into account.
The closing of the Palestinians of Gaza’s only exit to the outside world amounts to a crime against humanity, given the Israeli siege and ongoing bombardment of Gaza. Egypt has a moral and political obligation to open the Rafah crossing permanently and around the clock. Egypt cannot continue to support opportunistic interpretations of international law that justify the ongoing deprivation of medicine, milk, food and other essentials to the population of Gaza.
The sanctity of human lives should take precedence over borders and treaties and solidarity activists need to take the lead in making this point to the Egyptian and other governments.
Under the Geneva Conventions, Palestinians, like all other people, are entitled to freedom of movement and protection from collective punishment such as the arbitrary closure of the crossing.
No misinterpretation of international law can override Palestinians’ right to free movement in and out of Egypt just because they are also at the same time engaged in a struggle against Israeli occupation, colonization and apartheid.
Haidar Eid is an independent political commentator from the Gaza Strip, Palestine.