For Gaza’s two million residents, the Rafah border with Egypt serves as a vital lifeline. Over the years, this crossing has seen numerous shifts, openings, and closures, prompting the construction of illicit tunnels beneath it to facilitate the flow of people and goods. As the war between Israel and Hamas persists, the Rafah border now plays a crucial role in evacuations and the delivery of humanitarian aid.
What is the Rafah border crossing?
Often referred to as a lifeline for people in Gaza, the Rafah border allows Palestinians living in the war-torn enclave to have a vital connection to the outside world and essential resources. It’s located along the 12km border that divides the Gaza Strip from Egypt.
The Rafah border is one of two main crossings for inhabitants of Gaza. While Rafah is located in the south of the Strip, another crossing called Erez is located in the north at the Israeli border. Rafah is thus the only crossing that isn’t directly controlled by Israel.
Rafah is controlled by Egypt, but Israel monitors all activity in southern Gaza from its Kerem Shalom military base, found at the junction between Gaza, Israel and Egypt, and other surveillance points.
“Theoretically, Rafah should be controlled by the Palestinian and Egyptian authorities,” says Lorenzo Navone, a sociologist specialised in borders and conflicts at the University of Strasbourg who has carried out significant research on the crossing. “But Israel still has influence over the crossing.”
People, goods and humanitarian aid all cross through the Rafah border. But because of the blockade imposed on Gaza in 2007 by Israel, the border has only intermittently been open to Palestinians.
“It doesn’t work the way a normal border does. It is selective, it can be activated or deactivated. It’s not an invisible border like the ones you find in the Schengen Area or across state lines in the US. You can’t cross freely with your car. It’s not open 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Navone.
The Rafah border was open for 245 days in 2022, according to the UN. And so far in 2023, it has been open for 138 days.
Why is it so important?
Many Gazans depend on the Rafah border crossing to survive. Since Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade and an embargo on the Gaza Strip in 2007, movement in and out has been significantly restricted. Living conditions in the enclave have seriously deteriorated as a result.
In times of peace, the Rafah border is bustling with commercial traffic and people travelling to and from Gaza. It allows Gazans to get access to essentials and other goods, like fuel, cooking gas, medicine and construction materials from Egypt.
For families separated by the border, it is the only way to reunite. “There are a lot of transnational families who want to see members on either side,” says Navone.
But leaving and entering Gaza is no easy feat. It is only possible to enter Gaza with a permit from either the Egyptian or Israeli government. Those who wish to leave Gaza through the Rafah crossing must register with the local Palestinian authorities (Hamas) weeks in advance, though those willing or able to pay extra can try via Egyptian authorities.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “the procedures and decisions by both authorities lack transparency”.
“People just sit there, waiting. They can wait for a month or even two to cross over into the Gaza Strip. Then they wait again to cross back into Egypt. It’s an impossible, lengthy process,” says Navone.
How has the border changed over the years?
Navone calls the border a “mobile frontier” that has shifted as a result of the multiple conflicts affecting the region throughout the years, including the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948, the Six-Day War in 1967, the War of Attrition in 1970 and the Yom Kippur or Ramadan War in 1973.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, “meaning the border with Egypt was actually on the Suez Canal”, explains Navone. Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1982, three years after it signed a peace treaty with Egypt.
Before that, what is now known as the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian authority. “The border was there, but it was more or less open – it was Egypt,” says Navone.
“All the issues about the border came after the Oslo Accords in 1993,” he says. The Accords were hailed as a breakthrough at the time, paving the way for the creation of the Palestinian Authority and allowing Palestinians to have areas of self-rule in their territories.
“But the Gaza Strip was still occupied by Israeli settlers. So for security reasons, the movement between Egypt and Gaza was not made any easier,” Navone explains.
Then in 2005, Israel launched its disengagement plan and its authorities pulled out of Gaza. A year later in 2006, Hamas swept the legislative elections in the Palestinian Territories and eventually seized control of Gaza in 2007.
“Since then, the Gaza Strip has become more and more isolated from the world,” says Navone. Egypt and Israel both largely sealed their border crossings with Gaza on the grounds that there was no authority providing security on the Palestinian side, due to Hamas’s presence on the ground.
As a result of these restrictions and the eventual blockade, a system of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt was developed, allowing goods and people to cross the border illegally. However, reports of tunnels discovered by Israel go back as far as 1983.
Then when an Islamist insurgency took hold of the Sinai in Egypt in 2011, the country’s authorities imposed strict controls on who was allowed to travel to towns and cities close to the Rafah border crossing. “Since the Egyptian revolution in 2011, all of the northern Sinai has basically been closed for security reasons,” says Navone. “It’s a big border zone.”
Rafah itself, both on the Egyptian and Palestinian side, has a history of being a smuggling hub largely thanks to the tunnels that have been built underneath the crossing.
Egypt purposely flooded the border area in 2015 in order to destroy the underground tunnel system that had allowed people and goods to pass from Gaza.
For the past 10 years, the crossing has been closed more times than it’s been open.
What has happened to the border since October 7?
Before the October 7 Hamas attacks that sparked the latest violence between the militant Islamist group and Israel, aid used to enter Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing controlled by Israel.
Since the war broke out, Israel has tightened its existing restrictions, making Rafah the only entry point for humanitarian aid.
Egypt said in the first few days of the war that the border crossing was open, but essentially inoperable, because of Israel’s bombardment. In just 24 hours on October 10, Israel carried out three air strikes on Rafah.
As a result, the border and its surrounding area was left in tatters, and roads were impossible to drive on, leaving humanitarian aid trucks headed for Gaza on the Egyptian border with nowhere to go.
Finally on October 21, the first aid convoy crossed over into Gaza.
Before the war, UN estimates say about 500 trucks would enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing daily. Since delivery aid was unblocked on October 21, a total of 374 aid trucks have gone in – which amounts to about 31 trucks a day on average. WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan called it a “drop in the ocean” during a news briefing on October 19.
Fuel desperately needed to operate vital infrastructure and water plants is still banned from entering by Israeli authorities.
But Rafah was mainly used as a civilian crossing before the war broke out, meaning its use for large-scale relief efforts is a “huge, huge undertaking”, aid officials told Reuters.
Thanks to a deal mediated by Qatar and agreed upon by Egypt, Israel and Hamas – in coordination with the US – limited evacuations have now been allowed through the Rafah border crossing.
At least 600 foreign passport holders and staff members from NGOs have been able to leave the Gaza Strip since Wednesday, November 1, with more expected to leave in the coming weeks. And Egypt also agreed to let around 100 people with severe injuries, along with accompanying family members, pass through the Rafah crossing.
“But the situation is very unclear for Palestinians in Gaza,” says Navone. Talk of Israeli plans to move Gaza’s population across the border into Egypt’s Sinai region has sounded alarm bells among politicians, experts and humanitarian groups.
According to the UN, 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza are refugees. “They would be refugees for a second time,” says Navone.
“And if they would be able to go back to Gaza, what would they be going back to?”