Immediately after Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967, the Israeli army issued an order defining the Strip a closed military area. Until 1991, residents of the Gaza Strip could leave the area freely for Israel and the West Bank under a general permit. After 1991, they were required to obtain a personal exit permit, which entailed many bureaucratic difficulties and vague and arbitrary criteria.
Crowded buses at one of the rare times Rafah Crossing has been open. Photo: Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem, 6 March 2007.
In September 2005, following the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, Israel issued an order declaring the end of the military government there. However, Israel continues to control almost all the exit and entry points around the Gaza Strip. The area borders Israel on the north and east, and entry into Israel is possible only at crossings under its control. Access to and from the Gaza Strip by sea, to the west, and by air, is under Israel's exclusive control.
Rafah Crossing, on the other hand, is located on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Initially, it was widely assumed that the disengagement had also ended Israel's control of this crossing, and that free passage would now be possible. It quickly became clear that matters were more complicated.
Following the disengagement, Rafah Crossing was closed for three months. In November 2005, the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) was signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The agreement established that the Rafah crossing would be operated by the Palestinian Authority, under monitoring of the European Union and remote monitoring by Israeli security personnel. The agreement enabled Gazans holding Palestinian identity cards to cross. For seven months, the crossing operated in an orderly manner, and some 1,320 persons crossed daily.
On 25 June 2006, following the abduction of the soldier Gilad Shalit, Israel decided to close the crossing. It informed the European monitors that the crossing was closed for security reasons, and ceased to carry out its part of the agreement. Israel allowed the crossing to be opened only in isolated cases, and without giving advance notice. From then until June 2007, the crossing was closed for 265 days. After Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Israel announced the freezing of the AMA. The Palestinian force that operated the crossing on behalf of the Palestinian Authority was unable to reach the crossing due to Hamas' control of the Gaza Strip. Israel objected to opening the crossing on the grounds that it was unable to monitor the persons passing through it, and Egypt closed the border since it was impossible to implement the AMA. The European force also stopped its monitoring activities due to the European Union's refusal to cooperate with Hamas. As a result, since June 2007, the crossing has not been opened in accordance with the AMA.
Initially, Egypt did not open the crossing on its side either, thereby becoming a partner to Israel’s siege policy. Closing the crossing denies the residents of Gaza any opportunity to go abroad, even when necessary for humanitarian reasons, such as to receive emergency medical treatment.
On 2 June 2010, Egypt opened the Rafah Crossing on its side of the border with Gaza and permitted passage for humanitarian and medical needs as well as to students, foreign residents and Palestinians interested in visiting relatives abroad.
At the end of May 2011, after nearly four years of restrictions on the use of the crossing, Egypt announced the official, permanent opening of the Rafah Crossing to Palestinians. Accordingly, the crossing has since been open daily from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. It is closed only on Fridays and official holidays. Egyptian authorities added that women, minors and men over the age of 45 would not need entry visas to Egypt, and that the number of persons using the crossing would be limited to 600 a day. After initial difficulties and restrictions, as of December 2011, Gaza Strip residents can pass freely through the Rafah Crossing.