The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt has had a chequered history since its official inauguration in 2005. During its first two years of operation security periodically broke down in the face of angry and desperate Palestinians. The EU supervisory mission had neither the mandate nor the manpower to keep order. After 2007, when Hamas topped the poll in Palestinian elections and seized control of Gaza, the crossing was mostly kept sealed by Egypt in response to Israel's security concerns.
This history alone would be sufficient reason to welcome the reopening of the crossing this weekend. But Rafah is not just another border crossing, and its reopening is a development of far greater significance than the mercifully restrained response it has provoked so far would suggest. Situated on Gaza's only external border with a country other than Israel, it provides a needed safety-valve for Palestinians cooped up in one of the most densely populated territories anywhere in the world. For a country to be able to manage its external borders is also a necessary precursor to statehood. A state that cannot control its borders, or is not allowed to, can hardly be said to exercise sovereignty. The opening of the border is additionally to be welcomed for both those reasons.
But there is also a signal that the opening of the Rafah crossing does not send. In the past, the functioning of the crossing was a barometer for the state of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It was first opened amid the optimism that accompanied Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, and it was closed for fear that Hamas and its supporters would bring in weapons. This latest opening is different. It is the first time this border has been opened without Israel's express say-so.
As such, it is a gauge less of the peace process – which is moribund – than of the wider geopolitics and the repercussions of the Arab uprisings. It was the interim government of post-Mubarak Egypt which decided to open the border, for reasons largely of its own self-interest. Politically, Egypt is looking ahead to elections, and opening the border will be popular with a voting public sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Even though the border will remain closed to trade for the time being, the increase in traffic is expected to boost the frail economies on either side.
At the same time, the opening of theborder sends a clear message to Israel: that, while Cairo will keep its promise to uphold bilateral treaties, it will no longer permit Israel to dictate its policy towards the Palestinians. The opening of the Rafah crossing was always going to be opposed by Israel, which is used to dictating its terms and has serious qualms about the recent changes in the region. But – tellingly perhaps – it has not acted to stop it.
And while the possible implications of the Arab Spring may alarm Israel, there is reason to take a more measured view. With co-operation from Israel and support from outside, security in the West Bank has improved in recent years, even as the situation in Gaza has worsened. If there is to be a Palestinian state worthy of the name, it must, at a very minimum, have its own borders and be able to enjoy normal economic relations with its neighbours.
The opening of the Rafah crossing can be seen as a trial run for the sort of responsible security that a future state of Palestine will need if it is to take its rightful place in the region. For years, Israel has tried to set the terms and the pace for Palestinian statehood. But it has moved too slowly and is now being overtaken by events. In opening the Rafah crossing with Gaza, Egypt has underlined the truth of the new reality to which Israel will have little choice but to adapt.