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“Guests and Aliens”: Re-Configuring New Mobilities in the Eastern Mediterranean After 2011 - with a special focus on Syrian refugees

Session 5: Research on border zones: new mobilities and transnational networks of humanitarian response

The Field before the Battle. Palestinian Mobilities and the Gaza-Israel-Egypt triangular Border before (and after) the 2011 Egyptian Uprising

Lorenzo Navone

Entrées d'index

Géographique :

Egypt, Gaza Strip, Israël

Texte intégral

1The border that separates Egypt from the Gaza Strip is about 10 kilometres long and it constitutes the northwestern side and the natural extension of the Israeli-Egyptian boundary. This frontier, still lesser studied by social sciences (Hanafi and Sanmartin 1996), has become a subject of increasing interest over the past few years since it is crossed daily by sub-Saharan migrants heading towards Israel through the Sinai peninsula (Anteby-Yemini 2008). The border takes the form of an almost straight line that crosses a large, flat desert region, which is scarcely populated, connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Aqaba, on the Red Sea. This line traced in the desert is partially fortified and partially covered by electrified wire meshes and barbed wire. Constantly watched over by surveillance cameras, the border is under the control of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and the Egyptian police. The aim of this essay is to describe the fragmentation of social space as a result of this “triangular” border, and its effects on Palestinian mobility before and after the 2011 Egyptian uprising.

2Between 2009 and 2011, I spent several months in the field on the Egyptian side of the border, next to Al Arish and the Rafah border crossing in the region of northern Sinai. My ethnographic account is the result of on-site interviews, informal conversations with people in the border area and participant observation of significant events in this liminal space: people organizing their trips to the frontier, getting close to the border crossing, passing the Egyptian checkpoints and spending nights on the roadside in front of the Rafah terminal. My experience on the ground and the direct observations I made show the limits of the metaphor of the border as a “membrane” between two opposite thrusts: Crossing borders and reinforcing borders (Vila 2000). I believe, with Henri Lefebvre, that space is not only the theatre, the setting, of actions and conflicts: “its role is less and less neutral, more and more active, both as instrument and as goal, as means and as end” (Lefebvre 1991: 411).

3The main theoretical assumption of my presentation is the idea that “(social) space is a (social) product: […] the space thus produced also serves as a tool of thought and of action; that in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control, and hence of domination, of power” (Ibid.: 26). Accordingly to this statement, the frontier is not just a line established by a political, military or diplomatic agreement; the border rather, constitutes itself as a sociological fact, produced by human action and perception (Simmel 1998: 531), and – on the other hand – as a system of power relations that determines and produces the subjects it targets (Foucault 2009: 38).

I. The field before the battle

4Following Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has gradually assumed control of its side of the Rafah Border Crossing. After the landslide victory of Hamas (2006) and the failure of negotiations for a national unity government, a civil war erupted in the Gaza Strip between Fatah and Hamas (2007), Fatah officials had to flee from Gaza, and the EU observers mission (EUBAM Rafah) withdrew from the terminal. At the same time, Israel enforced a blockade on the Gaza Strip and Egypt literally “closed the door”, leading to the complete isolation of the Gaza Strip and its inhabitants.

5Between 2007 and 2011, I observed that the Rafah border crossing – the only “external border” of Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) – was sporadically and randomly open to the transit of people three or four days a month, beyond the juridical and technical framework established by the Oslo Accords. On the Egyptian side of the border, the opening was announced about a week before by the national media: the days of the opening were unpredictable, as well as the exact time intervals between one opening and the next. The requirement for the crossing was to own a Palestinian passport, with an exception for “VIPs” such as diplomats, members of international organizations or NGOs, international investors, and so on. During the opening days of the border crossing, hundreds of Palestinians gathered on the road towards the terminal, forming a long queue of people, cars and luggage: this was the context of my fieldwork.

6The “border device” filters, selects, directs, and governs people according to rituals of rejection, slowing down, waiting and expulsion which correspond with the accounts of the events experienced by the speakers I met in the area. The spatialisation of the border, its activation in space and time, is not (only) the mere effect of the boundary but rather a political display of the frontier itself: the more the citizenship is fragmented and ordered following hierarchies, the more the border creates a spectacle of its actions (De Genova et al. 2014: 13). This result is decisive in terms of the organization of space and of people’s lives.

7Despite the dramatic and self-evident materiality of the frontier that I studied, I believe that its function cannot be reduced to a binary logic, which clearly discriminates between states and territorial sovereignty, between inside and outside (Walker 2006). I believe, rather, that the border works as a device that constantly fractalizes and fragments identities, citizenship and rights, continuously defining scales between these two polarities. Contemporary borders, therefore, work in space-time: filtering, selecting, conducting and governing people.

II. The field after the battle

8The transformations triggered by the revolutionary processes in Egypt are still ongoing, therefore it is too early to draw conclusions from an extremely fluid and ever-changing situation. Did the transformations in the Egyptian political sphere reconfigure the functioning of the border between Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip, and how? Can we identify elements of continuity and/or fracture compared to the pre-revolutionary period? Did the 2011 revolutions affect Palestinian mobility towards and from the Gaza Strip?

9The political framework has definitely changed since the fall of Mubarak’s regime, and the interface between Egypt and the Gaza Strip is ever more turbulent:

  • The Northern Sinai Governorate [Shamal Sina’], the region where the border crossing and the terminal are physically located, has now become a war zone, a theatre of a low intensity conflict between the Egyptian Government and Israel on one side, the Bedouins from many Kabilas and jihadi militias [Ansar Bait al-Maqdis] on the other.

  • Since 2007, the Gaza Strip has been under a heavy economic blockade from Israel and Egypt. Since 2011 it has also suffered two large-scale military operations – “Pillar of defence” (2012) and “Protective edge” (2014) – whose consequences are: on the one hand, even more reliance on international aid, on the use of the Rafah terminal for relief and supplies, and on smuggling under the border for all the rest, on the other hand, the need for a reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah (and the PA) for the administration of the enclave and its reconstruction.

  • Egypt is still politically unstable. Since the 2011 uprising until now, protests, mass arrests, tortures, kidnappings and killings have been happening almost on a daily basis (HRW 2014), while the national economy is going through a terrible crisis.

10Given the new situation, northern Sinai and the Rafah area are almost inaccessible to journalists and researchers, whether they are Egyptian or not. However, based on the information available, we can point out some significant elements:

  • A progressive multiplication of decision-makers gravitating around the border.

  • On the other hand, the Egyptian government has militarized the entire border region in order to combat ABM.

11The new spatialisation of the border, and the increase in the number of decision-makers in the area, have probably resulted in a much more vulnerable condition for Palestinians who intend to cross the Rafah border. In this sense, the two main questions “How does the border work?” and “Who decides?” still remain open. My hypothesis is that a process of reinforcement of the border is in action, resulting in a less porous border and a more effective filter. Considering the current reconfiguration of the frontier as an “extended” border, the Rafah (Egypt) – Rafah (Palestine) border, as a single point in a large surface, now seems less relevant “on the ground”.


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Hanafi, S. and Sanmartin, O. (1996), « Histoires de frontières : les Palestiniens du Nord-Sinaï », Maghreb-Machrek, 151, p. 51-66. URL:

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Vila, P. (2000), Crossing borders, reinforcing borders. Social categories, metaphors, and narrative identities on the U.S.-Mexico frontier, Austin: University of Texas Press.

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Genova University

© Institut français d’études anatoliennes, 2016

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