Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gaza celebrates open borders after four years

Monsters and Critics

A Palestinian family crossing into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing, southern Gaza Strip, 28 May 2011. The Egyptian border crossing with the Gaza Strip at Rafah was opened on 28 May, ending four years of blockade of the strip. Dozens of men women and children headed to the Rafah crossing, most intending to travel to Cairo for medical treatment, studies or on business. However, in total only 300 Palestinians left for Egypt, in four buses, due to restrictions imposed by the Hamas government in Gaza. Those measures are set to be lifted in the coming days. EPA/ALI 

Rafah, Egypt - Gaza celebrated Saturday the opening of the Egyptian crossing border of Rafah, heralding the end of four years in which Gaza residents were largely blocked from leaving the salient. 

It was the first time since 2007 that the 1.6 million Palestinians living in Gaza are free to move without Israeli permission or supervision, thanks to a change in Egyptian policy. The flow of goods in and out of Gaza will also be allowed, through Egypt.

Dozens of men, women and children headed to the Rafah crossing, most intending to travel to Cairo for medical treatment, studies or on business.

The Islamist movement Hamas, which runs the de facto government in the strip, organized a celebration in Rafah to thank Egypt for its decision to open the border after a reconciliation agreement was signed between Hamas and Fatah, the other main Palestinian faction, on May 4 in Cairo.

According to Hamas' Interior Ministry, 270 Palestinians left Gaza for Egypt Saturday, in four buses. The number of Palestinians crossing is still limited due to restrictions imposed by Hamas, but those measures are set to be lifted in the coming days.

Abu Zeyad Yassin, a 56-year-old Palestinian from Gaza living in Romania said he had travelled specially to see parents, who live in Gaza. 'I'm so glad that the restrictions were eased and we can easily leave and come to Gaza,' Yassin said.

As soon as Gazans exiting the Strip arrived at a departure hall at the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing, they showed their passports to the Hamas police and waited to board the buses.

One police officer, Abu Osama, said that, so far, Saturday's transit of people was 'smooth and easy.'
'If the situation keeps going as smooth as it is today, I don't think there will be any problem in the future,' Osama said.

Following the ousting of ex-president Hosny Mubarak, the Egyptian government decided this week to open the border to women, children, holders of foreign travel documents, medical patients, students and investors, without special visas.

Men under 18 years and over 40 years were also set to travel from Saturday without any advance security coordination. But special permits were required by Egypt for all other men.
Despite the Egyptian lifting of restrictions, exiting Gazans were still required to coordinate with the Hamas Interior Ministry.

Hamas has said it would lift its restrictions shortly. However, the waiting list for exits is already fully booked until July 1.

Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza in 2006 after being hit by rockets and mortars fired from the strip, and after an Israeli soldier was taken hostage. The young Gilad Shalit is still being held captive by Hamas.

The blockade was tightened in 2007 when the Islamist movement Hamas took complete power in the strip, routing President Mahmoud Abbas' security forces. Rafah had been closed since.
But the May 4 reconciliation agreement convinced the Egyptian government to end its cooperation with the blockade. The pact put an end to the de facto Gaza-West Bank split and calls for Palestinian elections to take place within a year.

But Israel fears that the opening could also facilitate the smuggling of both weapons and money into the strip and on to radical Islamists.

Under a 2005 Israeli-Palestinian agreement, European observers were to monitor the crossing of goods and people at the southern Gaza border crossing. But they suspended their work in 2007, when Hamas seized sole control of Gaza.

The mission has been downsized from a few dozen to 13 international members, who have been idling in the southern Israeli city of Ashekelon for the past four years.

The European Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Rafah told the German Press Agency.

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