The Palestinian people’s efforts to take command of their own destiny took a huge step forward last weekend when Palestinians took charge of their first border crossing point. The opening of the border with Egypt is both a psychological step forward — a form of liberation as residents must no longer clear Israeli security checks — and a test of the institutional capability of the Palestinian Authority (PA): It is now responsible for the security of Palestinian borders. Time will tell if the PA is up to the test.
The town of Rafah and many of the families that live in it are divided in two by the border that separates Egypt from the Gaza Strip. Egypt administered the town (along with the rest of the Gaza Strip) from 1948 to 1967, until it was seized by Israel, along with the West Bank and the Golan Heights in the Arab-Israeli War that was fought in six days in 1967.
Since then, Israel has administered the border crossing, like all other entrances to Gaza. The division of the town has made Rafah a smugglers’ paradise, for both guns and other illicit goods. Israeli attempts to cut down on the trade meant that border crossings took hours while searches were carried out, and the border was frequently closed in reprisal for terrorist attacks.
Even though Israeli troops and settlers withdrew from Gaza months ago, the border has been open only sporadically. It took the intervention of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to work out a deal that would allow the crossing to remain open. Under the deal, Palestinians will run the Rafah crossing and Europeans will monitor its operation. Israelis will keep an eye on things via closed-circuit video cameras in a command center a short distance away, but will be unable to stop travelers from crossing the border.
The border had its ceremonial opening last Saturday, and nearly 1,600 people crossed into Egypt during the four hours it was open. (The European monitors are not yet at full strength, and the border will not be open full time until they are; that is expected in mid-December.) The border is especially important to the 1.5 million residents of Gaza as it is the only border that does not enter Israeli territory.
There is an immense sense of liberation as Gazans can now travel without passing through the often-humiliating and always-difficult Israeli security checkpoints. As another part of the U.S.-brokered deal, Palestinians will be able to travel the 40 kilometers between Gaza and the West Bank for the first time in Israeli-escorted bus convoys. Construction is beginning on Gaza’s seaport, and Israel is under pressure to reopen the Gaza international airport.
Reopening its doors to the world is only a single step in the Palestinian march toward statehood. The beleaguered Palestinian Authority must prove that it is capable of administering its borders. The most pressing task is preventing militants from using Palestinian territory to attack Israel, but preventing the smuggling of other goods is just as important. Government revenue depends on secure borders as taxes are levied on the flow of goods. Criminal organizations live on the profits from contraband goods.
The ability to police its borders will not only help bring peace, but will reassure investors that the Palestinian Authority can protect their investments. The Palestinian economy needs help: Per capita gross domestic product in Gaza and the West Bank was $934 in 2004, a plunge of nearly 40 percent since 1999. Official unemployment is 35 percent in Gaza and 28 percent in the West Bank.
Without security and stability, there will be no investment, and without investment, there will be no growth and no hope for the growing numbers of Palestinian youth. Their grim prospects have helped boost the fortunes of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that accuses the Palestinian leadership and PA President Mahmoud Abbas of selling out to Israel.
Mr. Abbas has been on the defensive. Hamas, which campaigns on a platform urging stronger resistance against Israel and clean governance at home, has been winning local elections. If current trends continue, it could be the big winner in Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 25.
The new door to Gaza could reverse Mr. Abbas’ fortunes — if he makes the most of the opportunity. An infusion of fresh blood into his Fatah movement would also help. Primaries that were held last week signaled growing exasperation with the old order and their corrupt ways: The new generation of Fatah leaders, headed by Mr. Marwan Barghouti, an activist who is in an Israeli jail for leading an uprising against Israeli occupation, swept the primaries. The message is clear: Palestinians want change. Can Mr. Abbas deliver it?
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