They’re Building a Wall: The Rafah Crossing, 1906-2006

Control of the Gaza-Egypt crossing at Rafah has been shifting for decades. The border’s complex history should inform debates about Egypt’s actions and intentions today, writes Jane Glen in the first of a two-part series on the crossing.

Gaza is a 4000-year-old city with a rich history and close ties to Egypt across the ages. In 1906, under the British occupation of Egypt, a border line was drawn between Sinai in Egypt and Ottoman-ruled Palestine. In North Sinai, Rafah town which is located on the border between Gaza and Egypt became a divided town. During World War One (1914-1918), the Ottomans defended Gaza city stoutly until it was taken by the British forces in November 1917.  The city of Gaza then became part of Mandatory Palestine under British rule which lasted until 1948.

Gaza after surrender to Britain in 1918.

In 1947 the General Assembly of the United Nations accepted a plan for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish regions. Gaza and its surrounding territory were allotted to a prospective Arab state. After the British mandate ended on 15 May 1948, the first Arab-Israeli war began. Following the defeat of the military coalition of Arab states, Gaza was reduced to a strip of territory 25 miles (40 km) long and 4-5 miles (6-8 km) wide. This area became known as the Gaza Strip. The boundaries were demarcated in the Egyptian-Israeli armistice agreement of 24 February 1949. Gaza came under Egyptian rule.

During this time, the mass displacement and dispossession of up to one million Palestinians from their homes between 1947 and 1949 led between 160,000 and 190,000 to seek refuge in the Gaza strip. As a result, the population of Gaza increased massively making it one of the densest places on earth. In 1949, Rafah refugee camp was established to house the refugees. Gaza remained under Egyptian rule until 1956, but was occupied by Israel from 1956 to 1957. In the 1967 Six Days War, Israel violently occupied Sinai and Gaza. Following the 1973 war, Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Thereafter it became the biggest recipient of US aid outside of NATO countries, apart from Israel itself. On 25 April 1982, as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, Israel withdrew from Sinai.

In North Sinai Israel and Egypt agreed to use the border of 1906 set up by the British. Accordingly, Rafah town, which is on the border between Gaza and Sinai, was again divided with part of the town in Egypt and the other part in the Gaza strip under Israeli occupation. The border of 1906 was however not precisely marked and many topographical features had changed. For months, Egyptians and Israelis could not decide where to put the border. In the end, they decided that the border fence would cross rooftops and cut across streets. Some houses were split, half in occupied Gaza and half in Egypt. A new barbed wire fence was erected and was electronically monitored, and in some sections there were minefields. People could decide which country they wanted to live in. During this period people were swapping houses trying to organise their families on one side of the border or the other. In some cases, the houses were in occupied Gaza but the grazing land was in Sinai.

In the late 1980s, when I visited the town of Rafah on the Egyptian side, I was struck by the barbed wire fence dividing families. On both sides of the fence, families were communicating across the divide using microphones. An empty stretch of land separated the two sides of the fence, amplifying the distance between the separated families and making it challenging for them to hear each other despite the use of microphones. Military towers loomed over each side. Witnessing this first-hand was heartrending, particularly as the plight of these families seemed largely unknown globally. Rafah on the Egyptian side was a relatively poor, densely populated town. Before withdrawing from Sinai, Israel has destroyed everything they had built since their occupation, so there was lots of debris and rubble.

The border between Gaza Strip and Egypt is 14 kilometres long, of which four kilometres run alongside Rafah. The occupying Israeli forces refer to this border area as the Philadelphi corridor. In Arabic it is known as Salahdin Axis. As part of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, both countries agreed that this route or corridor would be a buffer zone, a strip of land 100 metres wide, along the Gaza-Egypt border. In fact, Israel was in control of the border and the corridor until 2005.

The border crossing at Rafah. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Under Israeli control, the corridor evolved over time to be comprised of two distinct areas: a shielded patrol corridor (between the border and IDF fortifications) and a buffer zone (the space between IDF fortifications and the houses of Rafah). Before 2000, the border also saw a three-meters high wall erected and topped with barbed wire.The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt is called the Rafah Land Port (also known as Salah Al Din Gate). It was controlled and managed by the Israel airports authority until 2005.

In 1987, the first intifada took place and ended in September 1993 with the Oslo Accords between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel. Gaza came under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel transferred civilian functions to the PA. However, the stalling of the peace process led to a second intifada in 2000-05. Between 2000 and 2004, Israel used the excuse of the second Intifada to demolish over 2500 Palestinian houses in the occupied Gaza Strip. Nearly two-thirds of these homes were in Rafah, which housed a densely populated refugee camp. 16,000 people, more than 10% of the population, lost their homes. Most of the destruction in Rafah occurred along the Israeli-controlled border between Gaza and Egypt. During night-time raids and with little or no warning Israeli forces used armoured Caterpillar bulldozers to raze blocks of homes, incrementally expanding a ‘buffer zone’. Such an expansion doubled the width of the buffer zone to 200-300 meters. By 2004, the IDF had built an eight meter high metal wall along 1.6 kilometres of the border inside the demolished area, some 80 to 90 meters from the border, doubling the width of the patrol corridor.

The IDF argues that an extensive network of smuggling tunnels from Egypt required incursions into Rafah that resulted in house demolition. According to Human Rights Watch, the IDF’s justifications for the destruction were doubtful and rather more consistent with a different goal of having a wide and empty border to facilitate long-term control over the Gaza Strip. The IDF failed to explain why non-destructive means for detecting and neutralising tunnels employed in different parts of the world could not be used along the Rafah border.

In 2004, Israel invoked the death of five Israeli soldiers in Rafah to justify the need for a wider buffer zone, although the soldiers who died had been conducting an anti-tunnel operation between the metal wall and the refugee camp, and not inside the patrol corridor. The situation in Rafah kept escalating, and the uprising of the Palestinians and armed clashes with the IDF continued until Operation Rainbow took place, when a massive detachment of IDF forces invaded Rafah, destroyed a large number of houses, and killed Palestinians. The United Nations Security Council condemned the killing of Palestinians and the demolition of their homes.

By 2005 there were twenty-one Israeli settlements in Gaza and 9,000 Israeli settlers compared with 1.3 million Palestinians. In 2005, Israel unilaterally dismantled all of these settlements, evacuated Israeli settlers and the army from the Gaza Strip, and redeployed its military along the border. This operation was completed on 7 September 2005 and is known as the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. On the same day, Israel closed the Rafah Crossing. The disengagement and the removal of settlers increased the freedom of movement of Palestinians within Gaza. However, Gaza’s social, political, and economic isolation increased, including its isolation from the West Bank.

The Philadelphi route runs along the Gaza-Egypt border. Source: Wikipedia.

Following Israel’s ‘unilateral disengagement’ from Gaza strip, Israel and Egypt signed the Philadelphi Accord on 1 September 2005. The Accord was in relation to the demilitarised buffer zone created in 1979 between Israel and Egypt. The Philadelphi Accord gave Egypt some formal control over the border, subject to permission from Israel and assurances that there would be no militarisation of the corridor. Meanwhile the supply of arms to the Palestinian Authority was subject to Israel’s consent. The Accord authorised Egypt to deploy 750 border guards along the corridor to patrol the Egyptian side. Egypt would also coordinate operations and intelligence with Israel. The Accord insisted that the Philadelphi route as well as the rest of Sinai must remain a demilitarised zone. Israel handed the Palestinian side of the corridor to the Palestinian Authority

On 15 November 2005, under the Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing, part of the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) between Israel and PLA, EU Border Assistance Mission Rafah (EU BAM Rafah or EUBAM) became responsible for monitoring the border crossing. The agreement gave Israel power to dispute entrance by any person. The agreement also allowed for Rafah to be used for export goods to Egypt. A confidential PLO document revealed that Egypt under its previous president Hosni Mubarak did not allow such exports. 

The Palestinian Authority agreed that all imports of goods would be diverted to the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom border crossing (which also borders Egypt). Diversion was supposed to be a temporary measurement, however imports through Rafah were never realised, forcing Palestinians to develop a smuggling tunnels economy. Israel had consistently tried to turn Kerem Shalom border crossing into a commercial crossing between Gaza and Israel or into an alternative crossing to Rafah. The Palestinians were concerned that Israel would take control of the Gaza-Egypt border or even replace Rafah, and so objected to Israel’s efforts.

On 26 November 2005, the Rafah Crossing came under the European Union’s supervision, while the Israel army kept full control over the movements of all goods and trade in and out of Gaza. From November 2005 until July 2007, the Rafah crossing was formally controlled by Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, and the European Union monitored Palestinian compliance on the Gaza side. When the Palestinian elections of January 2006 resulted in victory for Hamas and its leader Ismail Haniyeh became prime minister, lots of changes began to take place on the borders of Gaza. In June 2006, Israel issued a security warning, preventing European monitors from travelling to the terminal.

The agreement of 2005 is a staging post in the history of the Rafah Crossing. The formal control of the border that it gave to Egypt and Palestine are relevant to current debates about the movement of aid into Gaza. The stance that Egypt has been taking on the movement of goods has provoked debates about whether Egypt might have authority to take a different approach. The agreement of 2005 and the changes in the control of the border since 2005 are the context of these ongoing debates.

A second article will continue this history of the border, up to the time of the current attack on Gaza.