Since the capture of Israeli soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit in June 2006, the Rafah crossing has been closed to Palestinians in Gaza, except for "extraordinary humanitarian cases". In June 2007, after Hamas' ousting of Fatah, Israel imposed a naval blockade on Gaza and sealed its five border crossings with the territory. Egypt's closure of Rafah made the siege comprehensive, and effectively cut off the 360sq mile Strip from the rest of the world.
The devastating impact of the blockade on Gaza's 1.5million population, where food aid dependency has risen to 80 per cent, has been defined as a humanitarian crisis by a broad range of international human rights and humanitarian aid organisations - including Human Rights Watch, UNRWA, Amnesty International, and the World Health Organisation.
Under the presidency of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, Egypt only opened the Rafah border in response to exceptional crises, including during Israel's Winter 2008/2009 offensive against Gaza and in the aftermath of Israel's fatal raid on the humanitarian flotilla in June 2010. Rafah's closure demonstrated Mubarak's shared interest with Israel in undermining Hamas' leadership.
Egypt's post-revolution government is eager to reverse this policy - as evidenced by its successful brokering of a unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas and, shortly thereafter, its announcement that it will end its closure of Rafah. Egypt's decision comports with enduring border-crossing agreements that have been suspended since 2007.
Egypt's decision is a resumption of the status quo ante
According to the Agreement on Movement and Access(AMA), brokered by the US and the European Union to facilitate the transfer of authority for crossings from the Government of Israel to the Palestinian Authority following Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza, Egypt is authorised to control the Rafah crossing on its side of the border, in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.
Following internecine fighting in 2007, in which Hamas forces were routed from the West Bank but took control of the Gaza Strip, the border crossing agreement, along with Egyptian and EU participation was suspended -but not terminated.
The European Union's Border Assistance Mission to Rafah (EUBAM), deployed to support a smooth transfer of authority at the border, has conditioned its presence on cooperation with Mahmoud Abbas' Force 17, or the Presidential Guard. Since Fatah's ousting from the Strip the EUBAM has "maintained its operational capability and has remained on standby, awaiting a political solution and ready to re-engage".
The EUBAM has extended its mission four times since suspending it in 2007, indicating the EU's willingness to cooperate with the PA, should a political solution be reached between the rival Palestinian political parties. As recently as late March, the EUBAM Chief of Mission reaffirmed to Egypt's ambassador to Israel the mission's readiness to resume its tasks at Rafah.
Arguably, the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation removes impediments to EU and Egyptian cooperation at the Rafah crossing.
Vague though it may be, the agreement between Fatah and Hamas stipulates the rehabilitation of Palestinian security forces and a mandate to end the siege and blockade of Gaza. Although hostilities between the rival parties are ongoing, in theory, technical hurdles undermining the opening of the Rafah crossing have been overcome.
Accordingly, Egypt's decision to open the Rafah crossing is commensurate with existing agreements and signals a resumption of the status quo ante. Israel can do little to challenge this policy on legal grounds and it lacks the political credibility to maintain the comprehensive siege by force.
Israel lacks political credibility to maintain Gaza blockade
While 29 Democratic Senators have urged President Barack Obama to suspend US aid to the Palestinian Authority should Hamas join the PA government, European and international support for the unity government is robust.
On May 6, the EU announced that it will provide an additional US$85million in aid to support the PA in light of Israel's withholding of $105million of tax revenue belonging to the Palestinian Authority. Similarly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon - along with a coalition of donor nations - have urged Israel to release the Palestinian funds. Meanwhile, the United Nations' envoy to the Middle East, Robert Serry, has described the unity government as "overdue", demonstrating general international support for the unity government that includes Hamas.
Similar international support exists for ending the siege on Gaza. Especially since Israel's raid on the Gaza flotilla in May 2010, support for the debilitating siege has steadily dwindled. In the aftermath of the fatal attack in international waters, even the US described Israel's blockade as "untenable" and called on Israel to change its policy toward Gaza.
The White House not only supports an easing of the siege, but it also supports Egypt's post-revolution government. Shortly after Mubarak's departure, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Egypt to congratulate the new government - and promised it diplomatic support as well as economic aid. Although not impossible, it is unlikely that the US will challenge Egypt's decision, which reflects the US' blockade policy as well as the US-brokered AMA, and risk undermining the government's nascent development.
Finally, within Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lacks the political support necessary to take any significant risks. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni has accused Netanyahu of isolating Israel and stated that her Kadima party would not join a Netanyahu-led coalition even in the face of September’s "political tsunami". Livni also opposes the Palestinian unity government, but explains "there is a difference between defending Israel and aiding the survival of a prime minister that only damages the country".
In light of broad support for the Palestinian unity government, frustration with the ongoing blockade, enthusiasm for Egypt's new government, and Netanyahu's tenuous domestic standing, it is neither likely that Israel can mobilise significant political opposition to Egypt's new policy, nor use force to respond to opening of the Rafah crossing.
Buoyed by impunity, the cover afforded by turmoil in the region, and the desire to establish its qualitative military edge in the region, Israel may nevertheless employ a military option to respond to the reopened crossing. Even if it does not use force at Rafah, it may brandish its military prowess by targeting the forthcoming Gaza flotilla, which will set sail for Gaza's shores in late June. In light of the political balance, Israel's choice to use force without a tangible military threat will exacerbate its already waning legitimacy.
Escaping this political trapping leaves Israel with little other choice than to urge the US to act on its behalf. Although the US Congress has already demonstrated its willingness, the Obama administration has yet to show whether it will again intervene in this part of the fast-transforming Middle East – a region where US interests continue to hang in the balance.
Noura Erakat is a Palestinian human rights attorney and activist. She is currently an adjunct professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in Georgetown University. She is also a co-editor of Jadaliyya.com.