Egypt to open Rafah crossing permanently

By Mark Lavie

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 25 2011 11:38 p.m. MDT

Palestinians carry their belongings coming back from Egypt at the Rafah border crossing, southern Gaza Strip.

Associated Press

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CAIRO — Egypt's decision Wednesday to end its blockade of Gaza by opening the only crossing to the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory this weekend could ease the isolation of 1.4 million Palestinians there. It also puts the new Egyptian regime at odds with Israel, which insists on careful monitoring of people and goods entering Gaza for security reasons.

The Rafah crossing will be open permanently starting Saturday, Egypt's official Middle East News Agency announced. That would provide Gaza Palestinians their first open border to the world in four years, since Egypt and Israel slammed their crossings shut after the Islamic militant Hamas overran the Gaza Strip in 2007.

During the closure, Egypt sometimes opened its border to allow Palestinians through for special reasons such as education or medical treatment. But with Israel severely restricting movement of Palestinians through its Erez crossing in northern Gaza, residents there were virtual prisoners.

MENA's statement said the old rules will be reinstated, allowing Palestinians with passports to cross into Egypt every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. except for Fridays and holidays.

Entry into Gaza was more complicated. Palestinians ran their side of the crossing. European monitors had a role at the crossing, and they have been waiting to resume that function. Also, Israel was supposed to have a monitoring role from afar, theoretically to stop weapons and militants from entering Gaza.

Mohammed Awad, the Hamas minister of foreign affairs, said he "highly appreciates the decision by the Egyptian brothers to ease the process of travel at Rafah terminal. This reflects the deep relation between us and Egypt, and it will contribute to ease the lives of the Palestinians in Gaza."

Col. Ayoub Abu Shaer, Gaza director of the Rafah terminal, said the two sides have been discussing the changes in recent weeks. Under the proposal, women would be able to leave Gaza without restrictions, while men between the ages of 18 and 40 would have to obtain visas for Egypt at the border.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor refused to comment.

Benoit Cusin, a representative of the European observers, said they have not received instructions from Israel or the Palestinians. "We are ready when they are," he said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the crossing was already open some of the time. "The U.S. supports efforts to meet the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people in Gaza," he told The Associated Press. "Efforts should also ensure that the transfer of weapons or other materiel and financial support for terrorism is blocked."

The decision reflected a change in Egypt's attitude toward Israel since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

The military council running the country until parliamentary and presidential elections is less concerned about its relations with Israel and has shown more interest in the Palestinians.

Last month, the Egyptian regime successfully brokered a reconciliation between Hamas and rival Fatah, which runs the West Bank government. The two had been at odds since the brief 2007 conflict, when Hamas expelled Fatah forces from Gaza. Repeated efforts by the previous Egyptian government to heal the rift failed.

MENA said the decision to open the Rafah crossing was part of efforts "to end the status of the Palestinian division and achieve national reconciliation." Before the Gaza conflict, the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas ran the Palestinian side of the Gaza crossing, and Israel always objected to Hamas having a role there.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby told the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera last month that the closure of Rafah crossing was about to end, calling the decision to close it "a disgusting matter."

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