The Rafah Quartet

The destruction of the "Rafah Wall" on 23 January brought to the forefront a question that has unfortunately been ignored for the last six months: what to do with the Rafah crossing while Gaza is under Hamas's effective control? In the absence of an answer, the crossing has been, for all practical purposes, closed since June 2007 when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. The EU, at that point unable to carry out the main task of its Border Assistance Mission (to assist the Palestinian Authority in implementing the Movement and Access Agreement at Rafah), withdrew its monitors from the crossing.

Egypt, faced with the ensuing administrative, legal and security vacuum on the Palestinian side of the border, shut its own door until a solution could be found. Neither the Palestinian Authority (PA) nor Hamas seemed in a hurry to find that solution. Israel maintained its distance but kept a close watch. In the meantime, Hamas's calls for an unconditional opening of the crossing, at the cost of breaking remaining economic and administrative ties between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and Israel, went ignored.

While Hamas, the PA and Egypt watched the paint dry at Rafah, the security situation in the north of Gaza slowly deteriorated. Israel launched a rolling military operation. It also cut off most fuel and other supplies, bringing life in the Strip to a complete halt. Instead of responding with its own strikes, as many thought it would, Hamas moved south and orchestrated the fall of the wall separating Gaza from Egypt. The reported hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who flowed into Sinai, and continued to cross back and forth despite Egyptian attempts to re-seal the border, were the materialisation of Egypt's worst nightmares.

In the aftermath, all four parties began proposing their own solutions for the Rafah crossing. But for any solution to be sustainable, it has to be supported by all members of what has become the "Rafah Quartet": Egypt, the PA, Hamas and Israel, who between them exercise de facto or de jure control of the Rafah area. During the past six months, each of these four parties has been trying to impose its own vision, or exclude that of another member. That strategy has failed, and it has become clear that the consent of all four is a prerequisite for any arrangement to work.

Hamas won this round, yet it cannot impose a vision that excludes any of the other three. Neither Egypt nor the PA will support a break- up between Gaza and the West Bank, nor any measure that legitimises Hamas's control over the Strip.

The PA will not accept the consequences of an arrangement that would sever the administrative ties that unite Gaza and the West Bank. Rhetoric aside, the reality is that severing these ties would cut current access between Gaza and the West Bank, and exclude Gazans from existing arrangements in the West Bank. This means that administrative tools created by or with the PA, such as passports, will no longer be accepted worldwide as they are currently. The de facto authorities in Gaza will then create new administrative realities that wouldn't be recognised by the PA in Ramallah, or by Israel -- and possibly not by a wide number of international players. The sum of all this is deeper rift between Gaza and the West Bank, as well as a general worsening of the living conditions of Palestinians in Gaza.

In addition, the PA will oppose opening the Rafah crossing if so doing violates economic agreements between the PA and Israel and leads to Gaza's exclusion from the customs union it has with the West Bank and Israel. A collapse of the customs union means that the Gazan economy will be cut off from the rest of the Palestinian and Israeli economy, on which it is dependent. Some argue that Gaza's crossings were shut down most of the time during recent years, and that employment in Israel was curtailed dramatically, leaving little incentive for Gaza to stay in the customs union anyway. This is true. Yet carving Gaza out of this customs union will turn the current dire conditions in Gaza into a permanent state of affairs. Egypt offers little in the way of markets for Gaza's produce, and certainly no market for labour. Unless Gaza finds overseas markets that it can access in due time -- and that are interested in Gaza's fresh vegetables and flowers -- current levels of unemployment and economic recession in Gaza will perpetuate. While prices seem cheaper in Egypt, hence inviting Gazans to favour buying from Egyptian markets, it is precisely because of the Egyptian low prices that Gaza's economy would suffer if separated from its current context.

Israel cannot have it its way either. Last week's events at Rafah demonstrated to the Israeli leadership, especially to the military brass, the limits of the use of force and of the blockade. The crossings cannot be sealed indefinitely. Squeezing the civilian population in Gaza, in addition to its moral inadmissibility, could well produce the opposite effect sought. Moreover, the recent "Sinai shopping campaign" by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians can -- under certain circumstances -- develop into a serious security threat to Israel, and to Israeli-Egyptian relations.

Neither it is possible for the PA to impose a vision on how to handle the crossing that would isolate and weaken Hamas. Hamas proved its ability to take the initiative and exploit Egypt's vulnerability to Palestinian suffering. And it is likely that Hamas will use this newly acquired tool again when necessary.

Over the last week, Egypt also learned that it could not ignore the problem in the hope that it would go away. Nor can it afford to postpone addressing the problem until Palestinian national reconciliation is at hand. As it summons the leaders of Hamas and the PA to Cairo, it will have no option but to seek a solution acceptable to both, and to Israel. After months of delay, and the needless suffering of thousands of Palestinians locked in Gaza, the Rafah Quartet is finally in concert.

To obtain the approval of the four, an arrangement at Rafah must offer each of them something important without undermining the position of the other three.

For the PA, an acceptable arrangement must comply with previous agreements, protect the unity of the West Bank and Gaza, and not strengthen Hamas's hold on the Strip. For Israel, an acceptable arrangement must ensure there is no flow of weapons into Gaza, or of "wanted elements" out of it, and must give it clarity on customs union rules. For Hamas, any arrangement has to ensure that there is unimpeded access to and from the Strip, and that its control over the Strip is not given away without a political agreement with the PA. Egypt, for its part, must obtain stability at its border and a reduction in the level of tension between its contradictory obligations towards all three parties.

Such an arrangement is possible. It requires two elements. The first is the return of the Palestinian Crossings Authority to all the crossings of Gaza, supported by a PA security force to be deployed inside and around the crossings, in order to implement border regulations stipulated by previous agreements between the PLO and Israel. The second element is a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian factions in Gaza, without which the opening of the crossings will be -- at best -- temporary.

The opening of the crossings and the ceasefire will give Hamas important political gains: end of the blockade policy, a needed respite from Israeli military aggression, and an alleviation of internal pressure. Yet this arrangement would not undermine the PA's political standing. Rather, it would enhance its credibility as the indispensable partner for Palestinian livelihood and welfare. It would also offer President Mahmoud Abbas a degree of improvement on the ground that he desperately needs for negotiations with Israel to proceed. Such an arrangement would also offer Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the security improvement he needs, especially amid the political storm he is weathering. It also spares the Israeli army -- and Defense Minister Barak -- an uncertain adventure in Gaza with possible high human cost. And it does so without forcing Israel to recognise Hamas or engage with it. Finally, this arrangement would give Egypt, obviously, tranquillity at its eastern border.

Such an arrangement would not necessarily lead to Palestinian national reconciliation, but it would not hinder it either. On the contrary, it could be a building block towards achieving it if genuine national dialogue ensues. Nor would it lead to the release of Gilad Shalit, but a ceasefire would offer better context for prisoner exchange talks to proceed. Finally, it would not end Israeli complaints about smuggling and tunnels, but it would certainly be an improvement on the open space currently being created in Sinai.

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