Egypt permanently opens Rafah border crossing with Gaza


Egypt on Saturday reopened its Rafah border with the Gaza Strip, allowing people to cross freely for the first time in four years, an Agent-France Press correspondent reported.

The first busload of passengers crossed into Egypt on Saturday morning at the Rafah terminal, where about 400 Gazans awaited.

Among the first to cross the reopened border post were two ambulances ferrying patients from the hitherto-blockaded Gaza Strip for treatment in Egypt as well as a minibus carrying a dozen visitors.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi announced on April 29, after the reconciliation of Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, that the crossing would reopen permanently, stressing this would help ease the blockade imposed by Israel.

The Rafah crossing -- the coastal enclave's only border post not controlled by Israel -- will be open to people for eight hours daily except Fridays and public holidays. It will remain closed to goods.

Since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak on February 11, the military council to which he ceded power has loosened Egypt's grip on Rafah, previously open only in exceptional cases for a few days per month for humanitarian reasons.

Mr. Mubarak was regularly accused of complicity with the Israeli blockade for his refusal to keep the terminal open, a decision he justified by invoking the fight against terrorism and trafficking with the Palestinian enclave.

Palestinians had dug numerous tunnels under the border between Egypt and Gaza to smuggle all kinds of goods, including weapons.

Imposed in June 2006 following the abduction of an Israeli soldier, the blockade of the Gaza Strip has been tightened significantly following the takeover of the territory in June 2007 by Islamic group Hamas.

The move to lift most travel restrictions on Gaza residents brings long-awaited relief to the territory's Palestinian population and a significant achievement for its Hamas rulers. But it raises Israeli fears it will be easier for militants to go in and out of Gaza.

(Sara Ghasemilee, an editor at Al Arabiya, can be reached at [email protected])