BACKGROUNDER: The Rafah Crossing and Restrictions on Cross-Border Movement for Gaza Palestinians

Two countries border the Gaza Strip. Both strictly limit the passage of goods and people into and out of the Strip. But when describing the effect of these border restrictions, some — including journalists who should know better — inaccurately and unfairly attribute responsibility to only one of the countries. According to some major media organizations, there is an “Israeli siege” or an “Israeli blockade,” and Gazans are “penned in by Israel.”

The Gaza Strip is bounded by Israel (to the north and east) and Egypt (to the south). It is reasonable, when specifically discussing the crossing points between Israel and Gaza — Karni, Sufa, Kerem Shalom, Erez and Nachal Oz — to refer to “Israeli restrictions.” Except for humanitarian cases, Israel has mostly closed its own border with Gaza to human traffic after repeated attacks from that territory (including attacks targeting crossing points) and after an organization sworn to Israel’s destruction took control of Gaza. But it is factually inaccurate to describe the restrictions in their totality as Israeli when an essential component is Egypt’s closure of the Rafah crossing point between Egypt and Gaza.

The Rafah crossing is presently under Palestinian and Egyptian control, both de jure and de facto. International agreements adopted in 2005 explicitly name these parties as the operators of the crossing point; and although upheaval in the Gaza Strip has disrupted implementation of the agreements, the occasional bilateral opening of the crossing by Egypt and Hamas shows that these powers nonetheless exercise control of this passage into and out of the Gaza Strip.


The Israeli presence along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip — also known as the Philadelphi corridor — ended in the summer of 2005, when Israel removed all of its soldiers and citizens from Gaza as part of its “Disengagement Plan.”

Israel had initially considered keeping troops along Philadelphi corridor. Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog notes that the country’s defense establishment argued against evacuating this zone because it was concerned about the militarization of Gaza. “Without Israeli soldiers guarding the border, it was feared that more and new weapons systems, including anti-aircraft missiles and improved rockets, could escalate the danger to Israel,” he explained in a piece written for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “No other party, it was argued, can effectively substitute for Israel’s motivation and capability in curbing smuggling.”

But despite its security concerns, Israel decided to abandon this border zone so as to fully and unambiguously end its presence in the Gaza Strip.

In hopes of filling the void that would be created by the Israeli pullout, and with an eye to combating smuggling of arms and other goods into Gaza across the Philadelphi corridor, Israel and Egypt signed on Sept. 1, 2005 a document — the Agreed Arrangements Regarding the Deployment of a Designated Force of Border Guards along the Border in the Rafah Area — allowing Egypt to deploy 750 “border guards” to the area. Previously, under the terms of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace accords, Egypt could only deploy “police officers.” (For further details, see here. For differing analyses of the Agreed Arrangements, see here and here.) The Rafah crossing, meanwhile, was temporarily closed for renovations.

This arrangement was followed a month later by two multilateral agreements focused on Palestinian movement and trade. The Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) calls for the opening and upgrade of border crossings between the Gaza Strip and its two neighbors; the export of produce from Gaza; the movement of people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank with arrangements that address Israeli security concerns; the reduction of obstacles in the West Bank “to the maximum extent possible” without harming Israeli security; progress on the construction of a Gaza seaport; and discussion about the Gaza airport.

The Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing (APRC) elaborates on the relatively general provisions of the AMA, adding specific details about the reopening of the Rafah crossing point between Egypt and Gaza. It stipulates that “Rafah will be operated by the Palestinian Authority on its side, and Egypt on its side,” and that European Union observers would be on site to monitor implementation of the agreement and provide assistance to the Palestinians.

Although the APRC allows Israel to raise concerns over who passes through and works at the crossing point, the final decision on these matters is left to the Palestinians. This meant that the border was no longer controlled by Israel. In the words of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice at a Nov. 15, 2005 press conference marking the finalization of the agreement, “for the first time since 1967, Palestinians will gain control over entry and exit from their territory. … [T]he Rafah crossing … is an international crossing, the Palestinians on one side, Egyptians on the other, with third-party help.” Added EU High Representative Javier Solana: “This is the first time that a border is opened and not controlled by the Israelis.” Palestinian official Saeb Erekat similarly asserted that “this is the first time in history we will run an international passage by ourselves, and it’s the first time Israel does not have a veto over our ability to do so.”


The Agreement on Movement and Access and the Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing were products of a brief period of relative optimism. Israel had just withdrawn from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Palestinians were celebrating. There was talk of further withdrawals, economic development in Gaza, and Palestinian violent groups finally coming under the control of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Israelis, at least those fortunate enough to live beyond the range of the rockets relentlessly launched from Gaza into Israel, felt more secure as compared to the years of Palestinian terror.

But the optimism, and the agreements, quickly crumbled, as three related upheavals transformed the Gaza Strip. First, the extremist Hamas, which is categorized as a terror organization by Israel and the West, trounced Abbas’s Fatah party in the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, and went on to form a government that was shunned by the international community. Still, despite the shockwaves caused by the surprise Hamas victory, the Rafah crossing stayed open virtually every day between Nov. 25, 2005 and June 25, 2006. This was possible in part because Abbas’s Presidential Guard took control of the crossing in April 2006, days after the new government was sworn in. With a militia not affiliated with Hamas running the crossing, the European observers — known as the European Union Border Assistance Mission in Rafah, or EUBAM — were able to continue working without violating the EU ban on dealing with Hamas.

The second decisive event had more of an immediate impact, and led to a year-long period during which the Rafah terminal was only sporadically opened. On June 25, 2006, Hamas gunmen infiltrated Israel from the Gaza Strip, killed two Israeli soldiers and kidnapped a third. Israel responded by closing its border with Gaza and launching a military operation, dubbed Operation Summer Rains, meant to secure the release of the soldier, Gilad Shalit.

The shutdown of Kerem Shalom crossing point into Gaza meant that the EUBAM monitors, who are based in the nearby Israeli city of Ashkelon and pass through Kerem Shalom en route to Rafah, could not work. And because the APRC dictates the Rafah terminal can’t operate without EUBAM, the terminal was closed. (According to EUBAM, the group is based in Israel because the security situation prevents it from moving to its intended base inside Gaza.)

Even if they could have passed through Kerem Shalom, it is uncertain whether the EUBAM observers would have opened the crossing during the Gaza fighting. Nonetheless, it became clear that the group’s dependence on the crossing point at Kerem Shalom had allowed Israel to exert some indirect control over Gaza’s border with Egypt, even from afar. This would eventually change.

But even then, the control was limited. On July 14, 2006, for example, as fighting continued, Hamas militants blasted open the border at Rafah and hundreds of Palestinians crossed from Egypt into Gaza. Having given up the Philadelphi corridor, Israel was powerless to stop the breach.

Operation Summer Rains represented a temporary return of Israeli soldiers to Gaza; but Israeli troops withdrew in November 2006, with the end of the operation. The following month, Egyptian and Palestinian border guards, at Israel’s urging, prevented a Hamas leader from bringing from Egypt into Gaza suitcases packed with tens of millions of dollars. Some interpreted this as a demonstration of continued Israeli clout at the Gaza-Egypt border.

Hamas gunman at the Rafah border terminal

As 2007 progressed, though, it became apparent that the battle for control over the border, and the Gaza Strip in general, would not involve Israel, but rather the increasingly antagonistic Palestinian rivals, Fatah and Hamas. Bloody skirmishes between the factions escalated, pushing Gaza toward civil war. The contest was settled in June, when, in a few days of intense fighting, Hamas forces violently crushed troops loyal to Abbas and took full control of the Strip.

This third upheaval marked the end of the old paradigm at the Rafah border. From when Gilad Shalit was abducted in June 2006 until the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007, the Rafah terminal was still able to operate on the 83 days that EUBAM observers could make it to the site. But the terminal shut down on June 9 as a result of the internecine fighting, and on June 15, 2007, EUBAM announced a “temporary suspension” of operations. It’s Web site explains: “The operations of EUBAM were suspended … due to the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. The EU has a policy of no contact with Hamas.” Although the group did not fully and permanently disband, there seems to be little chance of the EU monitors returning to the crossing point while Hamas is in charge.

Egyptian-Palestinian Control of Rafah Crossing Point

Egyptian border guards at the Rafah crossing

When the smoke cleared, only Egypt and Hamas remained on their respective sides of the crossing.

Egypt, which was party to the agreements governing operation of the Rafah terminal and concerned with its own ambitious Islamist opposition, the Hamas-affiliated Muslim Brotherhood, was reluctant to allow the terminal to reopen.

Although it has generally kept the crossing shut, it “unofficially” opened the Rafah crossing, without EUBAM and in coordination with Hamas, on June 18 and July 7 to let Palestinians cross back into Gaza from Egypt.

Any remaining doubts about who was left in control of the crossing were dispelled on Dec. 3, 2007, when, to Israeli dismay, Egypt and Hamas negotiated and oversaw the passage of 700 Palestinians into Egypt through Rafah. The following day, another 1,000 Palestinians crossed over. An exasperated Israel, worried that the breakdown of the international APRC agreement would allow known terrorists to easily leave Gaza, train with sophisticated militants in Iran or Lebanon and reenter Gaza to launch attacks against its citizens, could only lodge a complaint with the Egyptians.

And on Jan. 23, 2008, Hamas again forced open the border by blasting a hole in the wall between Gaza and Egypt. Egyptian border guards watched as many thousands of Palestinians poured across the border. Israel could do nothing. “Hamas was completely in control,” wrote Associated Press reporter Ibrahim Barzak (AP, Jan. 23, 2008).

As with the previous breach, it was a reminder that, in the end, it is boots (and guns) on the ground, not words on paper, that determines control of the crossing.

The wall has since been repaired, but Egypt and Hamas continue to demonstrate that they control the passageway between Gaza and its southern neighbor.

Palestinians pass Egyptian border guards while passing through the Rafah crossing

Egyp t briefly opened its side of the border at various times in the months that followed. Sometimes it allowed only Palestinians stuck in Egypt to return home to Gaza; other times it allowed two way traffic. Regardless, these were exceptions that prove the rule: Egypt decides when the Rafah terminal opens, and when it closes. (Hamas, for its part, prefers that it always remain open under exclusive Egyptian/Hamas control.) This means that while Israel controls its own boundaries with Gaza, as is the right of any sovereign state, it does not control all of Gaza’s borders.

Media Renditions

Despite the realities, some in the media persist in placing responsibility for Gaza’s border restrictions solely on Israel. For example, a story by Michael Kimmelman that ran in the New York Times (“Watching ‘Friends’ in Gaza: A Culture Clash,” Sept. 7, 2008) and International Herald Tribune (“A clash of civilizations,” Sept. 8, 2008) describes Gaza residents as being “penned in by Israel,” not Egypt.

It is one thing that a Gaza resident quoted in the piece attributes his sense of isolation to an “Israeli siege.” One might expect partisans to selectively cast blame. It is quite another that the reporter, instead of clarifying that both neighboring countries in fact tightly restrict travel across their borders with Gaza, echos without caveat the error of omission.(The reporter’s misleading statement — “Ruled by Hamas, penned in by Israel, grappling with daily shortages of food and supplies, Gazans need an escape” — was brought to the attention of both newspapers, which nonetheless did not correct the piece.)

A July 16, 2008 piece in the Washington Post asserts that “Gaza has been under Israeli siege since last June, when the radical Islamist group Hamas seized control of the strip” (Griff Witte, “Hundreds of Palestinian pilgrims return to Gaza”). Apparently the reporter does not understand, and certainly readers are not informed, that Gaza’s borders are affected as much by an international treaty, European Union policy against working with terrorist organizations, and (especially) Egyptian decisions as they are by Israel sealing off its own boundary with the Strip.

Likewise, NPR’s Steve Inskeep told listeners of the March 6, 2008 broadcast of Morning Edition that Gaza “is under an Israeli blockade.” The word Egypt is not uttered during the program.

Another prime example of inaccurate and unfair press descriptions of the Egyptian-Israeli restrictions can be found in the Aug. 31, 2008 piece in the Los Angeles Times by Ashraf Khalil, titled “Door shut on foreign study for Gazans: Despite scholarships to prestigious schools, many are trapped in the enclave by the Israeli blockade.”

Already in the subheadline, readers are told that the reason Gazans can’t leave the territory is supposedly an “Israeli blockade.” The second sentence again blames “Israel’s decision to virtually seal off the Gaza Strip” for causing problems for students hoping to study abroad.

Only after the piece makes clear that responsibility lies with Israel do readers find some curious information: “Israel, with U.S. backing and Egyptian assistance, virtually sealed off the narrow coastal ribbon, allowing in only limited humanitarian aid.” Although Israel is still cast as the responsible party, the reporter has injected vague reference to mysterious “Egyptian assistance.”

A few paragraphs later, there is another hint that, despite the piece’s explicit language about an “Israeli blockade,” the restrictions aren’t exclusively Israeli after all: “Anyone with any leverage — a Western government’s backing, or high-level connections in Cairo or to the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank — is using it to get out.”

And finally, buried deep in the piece, people who read that far find another telling passage: “Students also feel betrayed by Egypt. It is bound by treaty in its handling of the Rafah border crossing. But there’s nothing to prevent it from unilaterally opening the border, something it has done in emergency medical cases. … Senior Hamas leaders seemingly come and go through Rafah every week, [students say,] but not a few hundred graduate students.”

In other words — words that the reporter pointedly refuses to use — students feel betrayed because Egypt, too, decided to “seal off” and “blockade” the Gaza Strip.

Other news organizations have gotten it right. The Economist, for example, noted: “Gaza still reels under siege (by both its neighbours, since Egypt keeps its own border with the Strip almost completely closed). Almost none of its 1.5m people can go in or out” (“Ceasefire plus blockade,” Aug. 28, 2008).

Associated Press reporter Steven Gutkin wrote of “the Israeli and Egyptian-imposed closure.” (“Top official says Hamas stronger than Fatah,” Sept. 10, 2008). His AP colleague Karin Laub described “a 16-month-old international embargo and border blockades by Israel and Egypt” (“Hamas grip on Gaza hardens: peace outlook bleak,” Oct. 18, 2008).

And an unnamed Agence France Presse journalist correctly reported that “the Rafah crossing in southern Gaza is the territory’s only one that is not under the control of Israel, which sealed off the Gaza Strip after Hamas seized power there in June 2007. Egypt has also refused to open the Rafah crossing permanently” (“Egypt closes Gaza border after thousands cross,” Sept. 1, 2008).

This type of accurate and contextual description is perhaps commendable; but more so, it is what readers expect from professional news sources. It is not too late for the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and NPR to fulfill their professional responsibilities; that means correcting misrepresentations of the so-called Gaza “blockade.”

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