Bernat Armangue, Associated Press
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Egypt lifted a 4-year-old blockade of the Gaza Strip on Saturday, greatly easing travel restrictions on the 1.5 million residents of the Palestinian territory in a move that bolstered the Hamas government while dealing a setback to Israel's attempts to isolate the militant group.
The sense of relief was palpable as buses piled high with luggage crossed the Rafah border terminal and hundreds of people traveled abroad for overdue medical appointments, business dealings and family affairs. In Israel, fears were heightened that militants and weapons will soon pour into the territory.
"I was so happy to hear that the Egyptian border is opening so I can finally travel for treatment," said Mohammad Zoarob, a 66-year-old suffering from chronic kidney disease.
He said he had been waiting for a medical permit from the Palestinian health ministry for five years so he could go to Egypt for treatment. When Palestinian officials coincidentally approved the permit on Saturday, he kissed his family goodbye, rushed to the border and was quickly whisked across.
"They put me in an ambulance and in five minutes I reached the Egyptian side of the crossing," he said.
Saturday's expansion of the Rafah crossing was a tangible benefit of the popular unrest sweeping through the Arab world. The blockade, which has fueled an economic crisis in Gaza, is deeply unpopular among Arabs, and Egypt's caretaker leaders had promised to end it since the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after the Islamic militant Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007. The closure aimed to weaken Hamas. But the Iranian-backed group remains firmly in power, operating the border crossing even at a time when it is supposed to be reconciling with the rival Fatah movement.
Until Saturday, the Rafah border terminal had functioned at a limited capacity. Only certain classes of people, such as students, businessmen or medical patients, were eligible to travel and the crossing was often subject to closures, leading to huge backlogs that forced people to wait for months.
Under the new system, virtually anyone can travel, and a much larger number of Palestinians are expected to be able to cross each day.
Hundreds of Gazans gathered early Saturday as the first bus load of passengers crossed the border at 9 a.m. Two Egyptian officers stood guard next to a large Egyptian flag atop the border gate as the vehicle rumbled through. One after another buses crossed Rafah, pulling blue carts behind them with luggage piled high.
"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 Rami Arafat, 52, who hoped to catch a flight out of Cairo on Sunday to attend his daughter's wedding in Algeria.
Nearby, 28-year-old Khaled Halaweh said he was headed to Egypt to study for a master's degree in engineering at Alexandria University.
"The closure did not affect only the travel of passengers or the flowing of goods. Our brains and our thoughts were under blockade," said Halaweh, who said he hadn't been out of Gaza for seven years.
Inside the border terminal Saturday, the atmosphere was orderly, as Hamas police called passengers one by one to register their travel documents.
By the close of operation at 5 p.m., 410 people had crossed into Egypt, said Salama Baraka, head of police at the Rafah terminal, well above the daily average of about 300 in recent months.
Thirty-nine were turned back because they did not have the proper visas or travel documents, Baraka said. Israeli media quoted Egyptian officials as saying some were also on Egyptian "terror lists." In the past, Egypt had rejected passengers found to be on "blacklists." An additional 150 people crossed from Egypt into Gaza.
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