JERUSALEM, 13 May 2011 (IRIN) - Egypt's new leadership has promised to open the Rafah crossing into Gaza permanently after more than five years of partial and occasionally full closure, but observers wonder how far this will go to ease the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT).
"Our intention is to alleviate the human problems and living conditions for the people in Gaza," Ambassador Mahna Bakhoum, spokesman for the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told IRIN. "It is under study now - how, when and what [the opening of Rafah crossing will involve]. This is all being discussed by the government and by the whole country, not just the Foreign Ministry."
The announcement indicates a change in policy by Egypt following the revolution against the government of President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year. Mubarak considered Hamas a threat to state security. The post-Mubarak government, which also brokered an historic unity deal between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, has declared its determination to "end Palestinian suffering".
An open border with Egypt would provide a crucial valve for Palestinians living in Gaza, whose land, sea and air borders with Israel and Egypt have been effectively closed since 2007. Freedom of movement between Egypt and Gaza would have huge implications, particularly for Palestinians needing medical care unavailable in Gaza, but also for trade opportunities and a possible revival of Gaza's economy, which has been strangled by the Israeli blockade.
According to the UN, 80 percent of Palestinians in Gaza depend on food handouts to survive.
"We are trying to understand the practical steps that will be taken," said Khalil Shaheen, from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza. "As I understand it, [Egypt is] talking about having the border open seven days a week and eventually returning to the old procedure when it was open 24 hours a day.
"They are talking about all men over the age of 50 being allowed to pass freely into Egypt without a visa and all females given totally free entry without a visa. We are following the situation closely."
At present, Rafah is not technically shut but it is restricted. The crossing operates for five days a week with no more than 300 Palestinians able to cross per day. The categories of people allowed to enter Egypt are also very limited. Only people with foreign visas, foreign passports or those who need medical care in Egypt can cross.
Any Palestinian wanting to enter Egypt needs security clearance from the Egyptian authorities and an entry visa, both of which are time-consuming and difficult to obtain.
With Israel's border to Gaza effectively sealed to all but medical cases, if Rafah is shut entirely, as it was for a month during the revolution in Egypt this January, the 1.6 million Palestinians living in Gaza are trapped.
Rafah was shut completely between 2007 and 2010. In June 2007, when European Union monitors fled their posts at Rafah following the Hamas takeover, Mubarak closed the border, citing a breach of the movement and access treaty of 2005. This stipulated that Rafah could only operate under EU supervision.
The border was partially reopened in June 2010, following the deaths of protesters on board the Mavi Mara flotilla attempting to break the siege.
Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement and an expert on the impact of border closures on Gaza, is keen to stress that any easing of border restrictions will not resolve the crisis in Gaza as long as Israel maintains its blockade.
"The opening of Rafah will be wonderful in terms of Palestinians in Gaza being able to travel abroad and send and receive goods from abroad. But they need to be able to travel to and from the West Bank and send and receive goods from the West Bank," she said.
"Gaza and the West Bank are a single territorial unit, recognized by Israel," Bashi added. "They are a single economy. There are cultural, familial, educational ties between the two that need to be maintained."
Israel retains control of most of Gaza's land and maritime borders, its air space, population registry and tax system because of its security concerns.
Bashi also has misgivings about what the opening of Rafah crossing will mean in practical terms: "We have heard there is still a reluctance to let goods cross through Rafah. And who will Egypt recognize as a Palestinian from Gaza?
"Currently, the only recognized Palestinian residents of Gaza are those with Israeli ID cards. There are several thousand people living in Gaza, most of Palestinian origin, who don't have a Palestinian passport because they are not recognized on Israel's population registry. Will this change now?" she asked.
If Rafah were to open for the passage of goods, it would have a considerable impact on the tunnel trade from Egypt, which has been flourishing since the blockade was imposed.
Since Israel's easing of restrictions on consumer goods in 2010, the tunnels have been used predominately to bring restricted items, including construction materials and fuel, into Gaza. If these were to start coming across the border officially, the tunnels may only exist for illicit trade in weapons and cash.