Middle East News
Hamas jubilant at opening of Rafah border, Israel alarmed
May 26, 2011, 13:22 GMT
Gaza/Cairo/Tel Aviv - Gazans Thursday welcomed Egypt's decision to permanently open its border with the Gaza Strip, saying they felt a door was open to what had often felt like a 'huge prison.'
A jubilant Hamas, the Islamist movement ruling the strip called the step 'the right decision in the right direction' and said it would make life easier for ordinary Gazans.
But Israel, which first imposed a blockade on Gaza five years ago after rocket and mortar fire from the strip at its southern communities and after the hostage-taking of an Israeli soldier, who is still held captive by Hamas, was apprehensive.
The Egyptian government said that starting Saturday the Rafah border crossing would be open daily from 9 am to 5 pm (0700 to 1500 GMT), except for Fridays and holidays.
The move would help to end the Palestinian division and achieve national reconciliation for Palestinians, said the government.
But Israeli Home Front Defence Minister Matan Vilnai voiced concern it symbolized 'the first stage of a very problematic system for Israel.'
Vilnai nevertheless said the new regime in Egypt did not breach its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Israel fears Hamas would use the crossing to bring in money or weapons, or that militants could infiltrate the salient.
The move reflects the change in Egypt's attitude toward Israel and Hamas, after the ouster of former president Hosny Mubarak.
Under a 2005 Israeli-Palestinian agreement, European observers should be monitoring the Gaza-Egypt crossing.
But the European Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Rafah suspended its work in 2007 after Hamas violently seized sole control of Gaza.
The mission, downsized to 13 international staffers, has since been idling in the southern Israeli city of Ashekelon.
EUBAM spokesman Benoit Cusin welcomed the decision to open Rafah.
'The EU has consistently called for opening of the border crossings to and from the Gaza Strip,' he said in a statement.
He earlier said the observers would only be able to return at the formal invitation of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the parties to the 2005 agreement that established the mission - and not as a result of any unilateral action by Egypt.
Egypt would, however, also have to agree and cooperate.
Rafah had already been open five days a week, but passage was allowed only to students, foreign passport holders and patients on a 'very limited basis.'
Only about 400 people had been passing through Rafah daily, compared to about 1,500 a day during the two years the European monitors were present, Cusin told the German Press-Agency dpa.
A Hamas Interior Ministry statement said that from now anyone under 18 years and over 40 would be allowed passage without any advance security coordination with Egypt.
Hamas in Gaza however requires advance registration and Rafah's capacity has already been fully booked until July 1, so that Gazans not yet on the Interior Ministry's passenger list could expect to leave only by then.
'The Gaza Strip has been a huge prison and now we feel like there is an open door for the people to get out,' said Mai Ismail, 29, a communications student from Gaza City.
She cautioned 'the security and economic situations are still unstable and the Gaza Strip is still a fertile soil for violence.'
The move comes after Egypt mediated a reconciliation pact earlier this month between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the secular rival Fatah, ending the facto Gaza-West Bank split and allow long-overdue Palestinian elections to take place in a year.
Israel a year ago eased the entry of goods into Gaza, but exports and the movement of people had remained highly restricted. Well over 1.6 million Palestinians live in the coastal enclave of just over 40 kilometres in length and some nine kilometres wide.