RAFAH, Palestinian Territories (AFP) – Egypt on Saturday reopened its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, allowing people to cross freely for the first time in four years, in a move hailed by Hamas but criticised by Israel.
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.
A total of around 200 Gazans crossed by early afternoon.
The crossing is to open to people for eight hours a day from 9:00 am, apart from holidays and Fridays, giving Gazans a gateway to the world as Rafah is the only crossing which does not pass through Israel.
Under the long-awaited change, which excludes the flow of goods, people under the age of 18 or older than 40 require only a visa to pass, but men between 18 and 40 still need security clearance, officials said.
Jamal Nijem, 53, whose wife and daughter live in his spouses’s native Egypt, was among hundreds who flocked to the Rafah border post, but he was unsure whether he would be allowed to cross.
“I came here three years ago to rejoin my family but my Egyptian residency permit had run out because of frequent closures of the crossing, and the security services barred me from going back,” he said.
Commercial traffic will continue to have to pass through border points with Israel to enter the impoverished Palestinian enclave.
According to an official in charge of administrative procedures on the Palestinian side of the terminal, “the process is going without a hitch, and we are providing the facilities for travellers to pass quickly and comfortably.”
On the Egyptian side, an official said: “We are going to do everything possible to ease the passage of our Palestinian brothers, and we hope procedures will be simplified further in due course.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi announced in April that the crossing would reopen permanently, stressing this would help ease the blockade imposed by Israel.
The border has remained largely shut since June 2006 when Israel imposed a tight blockade on Gaza after Palestinian militants snatched Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still being held.
The blockade was tightened a year later when the Islamist movement Hamas seized control of the territory, ousting forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
The United Nations has called the blockade illegal and repeatedly demanded it be lifted.
The decision to permanently reopen the Rafah crossing came more than three months after former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned under pressure following 18 days of massive street protests against his rule.
It was hailed by Hamas and the European Union, but Israel has greeted the news with trepidation.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said Thursday the move was “a courageous and responsible decision which falls in line with Palestinian and Egyptian public opinion.”
The European Union said it was in consultations with Egypt, the Palestinians and Israel about returning its team of advisers to monitor activity along the frontier.
But Israel expressed concern, with Home Front Defence Minister Matan Vilnai telling public radio it would create “a very problematic situation.”
The opening follows an April 27 unity accord between rival factions Hamas and the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmud Abbas that was signed in the Egyptian capital.
Figures provided by the NGO show that over the past year, an average of 19,000 people a month have used the crossing — just 47 percent of the number who used it in the first half of 2006.