The deliberations over the future of the Rafah crossing point between Gaza and Egypt are of growing importance for more than one reason. First and foremost, Rafah is the only point of contact for Palestinians in Gaza with the outside world. Secondly, the way this crossing point functions will determine whether or not the Paris protocols will continue to be applicable. Finally, whether or not there is an Israeli presence will be significant in determining the ultimate nature of this Israeli disengagement from Gaza.
One important but partial aspect of the future of the Gaza-Egypt border was decided when Israel agreed with Egypt on Egyptian control through an Egyptian army presence on the southern side of the border. On the other side, however, there are still significant differences to be worked out in negotiations.
The Palestinian position is twofold. The Palestinian side wants an end to any Israeli presence while at the same time maintaining the customs arrangements agreed upon in the Oslo Accords under the Paris protocols. Maintaining the customs arrangements is crucial to ensuring that the economy of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank remains unified. In order to realistically maintain these two requirements, a third party presence was suggested to ensure the adherence of the Palestinian side to the custom and security arrangements that will be agreed upon.
The Israeli side, on the other hand, is insisting on an Israeli presence at any crossing. But it also is not willing to maintain its presence on the Palestinian side of the border. In order to achieve this, Israel has suggested moving the crossing point to the tri-point area where Egypt, Israel and Gaza all meet. That will, from an Israeli point of view, ensure Israeli control of the crossing without an Israeli presence inside Gaza.
Here there are two aspects of concern for the Palestinian side. The first is ensuring as complete an Israeli withdrawal as possible, and the other is ensuring as free access to the outside world as possible. There seems to be agreement among all parties concerned, with the exception of Israel, that an Israeli withdrawal, no matter how complete, will not facilitate any Palestinian economic recovery as long as there are restrictions on the movement of persons and goods. Gaza is an extremely small market with very poor purchasing power. Unless there is access to other markets, starting with the West Bank, investors will continue to be deterred and no economic recovery will be possible.
All parties interested in making sure the Gaza disengagement is a step toward stability and political progress should be keen to convince Israel to change its position. If Israel maintains control over borders it will consequently maintain restrictions. This is true whether we speak of the Rafah crossing to the outside world, the Karni crossing to Israeli ports, or the Erez crossing to the West Bank.
The parties should not rush their efforts to work out the crossing arrangements. These arrangements are going to be the make or break issue for the economic future of Gaza. That in turn will determine whether the future brings political and security stability, or unrest.