Egypt opens Gaza border crossing, easing four-year blockade
By Ernesto Londono and Joel Greenberg,
RAFAH CROSSING, Egypt — A few hundred Palestinians on Saturday became the first to cross the border into Egypt under newly eased rules that marked the first tangible dividend of the Arab uprisings for Palestinians.
“The people in Gaza have been watching the revolutions, and it gave them a rare sense of optimism,” said Fauzi Feyez Abu Koush, 44, a plumber who crossed about noon clutching a couple of stuffed handbags. “This gives us hope that our situation can get better and that we will one day create our Palestinian state.”
On the first day that Egypt allowed visa-free crossing for all but young men, 410 people had crossed by the close of operations at 5 p.m., the Associated Press reported, citing Salama Baraka, head of police at the Rafah terminal. In recent months, Egypt had set a cap of 300 travelers a day.
Some made the journey to seek direly needed medical help. Others crossed to visit relatives.
“I’m so happy,” said a beaming Hashna el-Reyes, 45, who intended to fly to London on Sunday to visit her son. “Before, I felt very disappointed. There was no humanity. Now, somehow I feel human.”
There was no public ceremony to mark the milestone, and although some passersby were visibly happy, the mood was subdued. Passport control officers were not mobbed, and there were more baggage handlers than suitcases to carry.
Egypt’s military rulers announced last week that they would permanently open the crossing, the main gateway to the outside world for the 1.6 million residents of the Gaza Strip.
Since the militant group Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has blockaded the territory and Egypt has kept the Rafah crossing mostly closed, opening it for limited passage a year ago after Israel’s deadly raid on a Turkish aid flotilla headed to Gaza. Until now, Palestinians who crossed needed special permits that were mainly granted to students and those with medical needs.
Egypt has kept tight control of the border with Gaza in response to Israeli concerns that militants could smuggle weapons into the coastal enclave and fears of a spillover of militant activity into Egypt.
Since president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February after an 18-day uprising, Egyptians have shown their support for the Palestinians in street protests, a factor likely to have weighed heavily on Egypt’s interim military rulers, who have been trying to appease a rancorous and newly empowered public.
Egyptian officials said the opening of the border was one of the results of a reconciliation pact brokered by Egypt this month between the rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. Egypt had offered to reopen the crossing as an inducement to Hamas to sign the accord.
Jazzy Abu Faraq, a 30-year-old Egyptian, traveled to the border crossing from Cairo wearing a T-shirt that marked the so-called Jan. 25 revolution and waving an Egyptian flag.
“We had to show our solidarity with the Palestinians,” he said. “We wanted to make clear that the will of the Egyptian people is separate from that of the authorities.”
Palestinians who crossed Saturday said they were in awe of what Egyptians accomplished in their uprising.
“We are very happy Egypt is now in control of the border,” said Musbah Mohamed Halawen, 59, who was traveling to have spinal surgery after a botched procedure in Gaza. “It is now an Islamic Arab border. Egypt and the revolution of January 25 brought us this.”
The opening of the crossing will provide longer operating hours, remove limits on the number of people crossing daily and allow visa-free travel for all Palestinians, except for men ages 18 to 40.
It is not expected to affect the passage of goods, which now cross only through Israeli-controlled entry points where a near-total export ban is enforced.
Some Israeli officials have voiced concern about the opening, saying Hamas could use it to smuggle in rockets and other weapons that Israel says are now brought into the strip through a network of tunnels.
Silvan Shalom, the Israeli vice prime minister, warned in a radio interview that “if the crossing is opened without supervision . . . it will enable the transfer of weapons, explosives, money and terrorists who might arrive from abroad, as well, whether al-Qaeda or Iranian agents and trainers.”
But other Israeli officials and observers have argued that opening the Rafah crossing could work to Israel’s advantage, by easing international pressure to lift its blockade of Gaza.
“The whole world claims that Gaza is under siege and Israel is to blame,” Giora Eiland, the former head of Israel’s national security council, told Israel radio. Now, “the Egyptians and Hamas are saying clearly, Gaza is not under siege, the crossing is open. . . . Diplomatically, this gives Israel a great advantage.”
Greenberg reported from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Islam Abdel Kareem in Rafah, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.