RAFAH, Gaza Strip — After a four-year blockade, Egypt on Saturday permanently opened the Gaza Strip’s main gateway to the outside world, bringing long-awaited relief to the territory’s Palestinian population and a significant achievement for the area’s ruling Hamas militant group.
The reopening of the Rafah border crossing eases an Egyptian blockade that has prevented the vast majority of Gaza’s 1.5 million people from being able to travel abroad. The closure, along with an Israeli blockade of its borders with Gaza, has fueled an economic crisis in the densely populated territory.
But Saturday’s move also raises Israeli fears that militants will be able to move freely in and out of Gaza. Highlighting those fears, the Israeli army said militants from inside Gaza fired a mortar shell into an open field in southern Israel overnight. There were no injuries, and Israel did not respond.
Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007. The closure, which also included tight Israeli restrictions at its cargo crossings with Gaza and a naval blockade, was meant to weaken Hamas, an Islamic militant group that opposes peace with Israel.
Since the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February, Egypt’s new leadership has vowed to ease the blockade and improve relations with Hamas.
“The closure did not affect only the travel of passengers or the flowing of goods. Our brains and our thoughts were under blockade,” said Khaled Halaweh, a 28-year-old student who was headed to Egypt for a master’s degree in engineering at Alexandria University in Egypt. He said he had not been out of Gaza for seven years.
The Rafah border terminal has functioned at limited capacity for months. Travel has been restricted to certain classes of people, such as students, businessmen or medical patients, and the crossing was often subject to closures. Travel through Israel’s passenger crossing with Gaza is extremely rare.
Under the new system, most restrictions are being lifted, and a much larger number of Palestinians are expected to be able to cross each day, easing a backlog that can force people to wait for months.
Some 350 people had gathered at Rafah early Saturday as the first bus load of passengers crossed the border. Two Egyptian officers stood guard next to a large Egyptian flag atop the border gate as the vehicle passed through. The atmosphere inside the Gaza border terminal was orderly, as Hamas police called up passengers one by one to register their travel documents.
After two hours of operation, Hatem Awideh, director general of the Hamas border authority in Gaza, said 175 people had crossed. None were forced to return, a departure from the past when Egypt had rejected passengers found to be on “blacklists.”
“Today is a cornerstone for a new era that we hope will pave the road to ending the siege and blockade on Gaza,” Awideh said. “We hope this facilitation by our Egyptian brothers will improve travel and will allow everyone to leave Gaza.”
More buses crossed Rafah later, dragging blue carts attached to the rear, with luggage piled high. In the terminal, many waited with high hopes.
One woman, who gave her name as Aisha, was headed for a long overdue medical checkup in Cairo. She said she underwent surgery for blocked arteries at a Cairo hospital in October, but Egyptian authorities had prevented her from returning for checkups because a distant relative was caught – and killed – operating a smuggling tunnel on the Gaza-Egypt border. During the four-year blockade, a thriving smuggling business has grown along the border. She crossed the border but it was unclear if Egypt would send her back.
Salama Baraka, head of police at the Rafah terminal on the Gaza side, said travel has been limited to about 300 passengers a day. He said it was unclear how many people would pass through on Saturday, but that officials hoped to get about three days’ worth of people, or roughly 900, across.
Rami Arafat, 52, was among the early arrivals. He said he hoped to catch a flight out of Cairo on Sunday to Algeria for his daughter’s wedding.
“All we need is to travel like humans, be treated with dignity, and feel like any other citizens of the world who can travel in and out freely,” said Arafat. He said he thought the relaxing of travel restrictions “will guarantee more support from all Arabs and Palestinians for the new Egyptian regime.”
The new system will not resolve Gazans’ travel woes completely.
While Egypt has dropped its restrictions on who can travel, bureaucratic obstacles remain. Males between 18 and 40 will have to apply for Egyptian visas, a process that can take weeks. Women, children and older men will need easier-to-obtain travel permits, which can be obtained in several days.
Israel, which controls Gaza’s cargo crossings, allows most consumer goods into Gaza, but it still restricts exports as well as the entry of much-needed construction materials, saying they could be used by militants. Israel also enforces a naval blockade aimed at weapons smuggling.
Israeli and American officials have expressed concerns that Hamas will exploit the opening to bring weapons and fighters into Gaza. In January 2008, masked militants blew open the Rafah border wall, allowing thousands of people to pour in and out of Egypt.
Egyptian officials say they have security measures in place to keep weapons from crossing through Rafah.
Hamas has long used tunnels to get arms into Gaza. Gaza militants now have military-grade rockets that have hit cities in southern Israel.
Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official, told Channel 2 TV Friday that Israel’s primary concern is that military training personnel could cross to instruct Hamas fighters.
“One trainer who tells them how to set up the rockets and how to use them is equal to a large quantity of weapons,” Gilad said.
Egypt’s decision to open the border is also meant to boost an Egyptian-mediated unity deal between the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. Hamas has governed Gaza since routing Fatah forces in 2007, leaving the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in control only of the West Bank.
Last month, the Egyptian regime brokered a reconciliation deal. With details still being worked out, Hamas will be in charge of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing, but Egypt coordinated the opening with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, said Yaser Afnan, Egypt’s ambassador in the West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank welcomed the opening of the crossing.