By Elliott Abrams, CFR
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are solely those of the author. This entry of Pressure Points originally appeared here.
From the moment when Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 while the West Bank remained under the control of the Fatah Party and the Palestinian Authority, the question of Gaza’s relationship to Egypt has been open.
Gaza was under Egyptian control from 1948 to 1967, under Israeli control from 1967 to 2005, and under Palestinian Authority control from 2005 to 2007. After the Hamas coup in June 2007, Egypt under Mubarak largely retained the border controls that Israel had put in place. Mubarak viewed Hamas with suspicion, as a radical group that was part of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Perhaps more surprisingly, Egypt’s new government, itself dominated by the MB, has continued those controls.
But that will change. Egypt’s new MB president, Mohammed Morsi, met in Cairo last week with the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal (and will meet soon with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh). According to the Hamas spokesman, Gaza will soon be connected to the Egyptian electricity grid and natural gas pipeline. This means its economy will be tied to Egypt, not Israel – its current energy supplier.
The ability of Gazans to travel to Egypt is also being broadened. Some press reports state that: “Egyptian officials announced Monday that Palestinians will no longer need visas to enter the country, ending part of a five-year blockade on the Gaza Strip…Gazans will now be able to leave the coastal enclave freely. The decision also applies to Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Officials at Cairo’s airport said they have received instructions to allow Palestinians of all ages to enter Egypt without any procedural impediments. Deportation rulings for Gazans in Egypt were also canceled.” Other reports suggest that “Cairo will facilitate the entry of Palestinians to Egypt, but will not entirely remove regulations.” At the very least, more Gazans will travel more easily to Egypt.
As an editorial in The National, the English language newspaper in Abu Dhabi, notes, these are significant developments that may forever change the Gaza-Egypt relationship. Here are excerpts from the editorial:
“Meshaal hailed a ‘new era’ in Egyptian-Palestinian relations, and there were signals at least of a welcome change. For many years, and certainly since the start of the crippling Israeli siege of Gaza in 2006, Egypt has played a shameful role as an accomplice to the blockade of Gaza.
“Already the Morsi era is changing that. The crossing at Rafah now allows more Palestinians through each day, and may soon be open 24 hours a day.
“But a new era in relations will bring its own challenges…if Egypt opens the border, it is likely that Gaza will continue to draw closer to Egypt, with more business and personal links created. There is nothing wrong with stronger ties with Egypt, but Gazans’ compatriots are in the West Bank, not over the border in Sinai.”
As that last line implies, an opening of the border and a reliance on Egypt for energy will cut ties between Gaza and Israel and closely connect Gaza to Egypt while the West Bank faces Jordan. In the short run, the impact may be small. But, over the years, it seems likely that Gaza and the West Bank will grow further and further apart.
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