Rafah is an ancient city that plays a key if often understated role in Middle Eastern Politics.
Dating back to the time of the Pharaohs, Rafah was for most of its history a part of the Egyptian empire, located at or near its northern expanse. While not a particularly important city until recently, it did offer Egypt a strategic stronghold in the ancient battles with Anatolia and Levant.
With the reestablishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, the city gained significant importance due to its location on the southern border of the Gaza Strip, a long, narrow territory claimed by the Palestinians as a sovereign state but controlled by many other powers at various times, including Britain and Israel.
The Gaza strip is bound on the West by the Mediterranean Sea, on the North and East by Israel, and its 11 km Southern border establishes the line between Gaza and Egypt.
The city of Rafah, located at the literal corner where borders of Gaza, Egypt and Israel intersect, took on a greater political role as the only legitimate crossing point between Egypt and Gaza. It has also become home to a massive and long lasting Palestinian refugee camp hosting individuals and families disenfranchised by the conflicts between Israel and the neighboring states.
In 1982, the city was itself divided into two parts, the North belonging to the Gaza territory, and the Southern segment to Egypt. In order to insure security between the contested areas, Egypt and Israel raised the central segment of the city to form a buffer zone. Access between the two halves is strictly controlled by walls and fences, which has resulted in the disruption of commerce, trade and family life, not unlike what occurred in Berlin after World War II.
The Gaza Crossing
The crossing point located within the city of Rafah has existed for decades, and control over access in and out of the Gaza strip has changed hands several times in that period. In 2005, Israel dismantled its control enters and turned over administration to the European Union Border Assistance Mission. Actual control was maintained on the Southern Side by Egypt.
Israel’s concern over the area stems from the possibility of hostile Palestinian organizations secretly amassing an army on its Western border which could be easily supplied by its access of several kilometers of shoreline on the Mediterranean Sea. This made control of individuals entering and leaving the area strategically critical.
At various times and for various reasons, the crossing at Rafah has been closed, causing hardships for families and individuals trying to get in or out of Gaza. Much of the food, clothing and supplies used by people in Gaza are purchased across the border in Egypt. Border closings would result in critical shortages, particularly for the people of Southern Gaza.
The Refugee camp which makes up part of the city of Rafah was established in 1949 with a population of between 50 and 100 thousand inhabitants, depending on the source and current political situation. In recent years, the actual population has been dwindling as many current residents have migrated to the nearby Tel al-Sultan camp, considered by some to be an extension of the Rafah facility.
Regardless of how the population is figured, the Rafah camp is generally considered to be the 2nd largest in Palestine.
In order to maintain proper security and to increase the integrity of the border zone, plans were initiated in 2015 by Egypt to eliminate the city of Rafah altogether. This has proven to be a controversialproposal, considered by many in Palestinian leadership to favor Israel, creating further tension between Egypt the rest of the Arab world.