Saturday, 28 May 2011

Egypt permanently opens Gaza border crossing

Israel is bracing for a fresh confrontation on its borders after a Facebook campaign urging Palestinian refugees to march on Jerusalem on Friday got tens of thousands of supporters.

Egypt has opened its border with Gaza, easing restrictions and allowing more Palestinians to cross.

Egypt has reopened its Rafah border with the Gaza Strip, allowing people to cross freely for the first time in four years, a sharp departure from the policies of former president Hosni Mubarak.

The opening on Saturday morning provided long-awaited relief for Palestinians - a move ushered in by Egypt's new government in a bid to ease the suffering of Gaza residents.

Al Jazeera's Nicole Johnston, reporting from the Hamas-ruled Gaza, said there will still be restrictions in place, preventing men younger than 40 from leaving the Strip.

"It will allow basically all women to leave Gaza, also children under the age of 18 years will be allowed to leave, as well as men over the age of 40 years. However, those between the ages of 18 and 40 years will require an Egyptian visa," she said.

"Visas would have to come from Ramallah. Sources in Hamas say they have been told by the Egyptian authorities over the last few weeks that they [Egyptians] do intend to open some sort of representative office inside Gaza, so that people can get the visa from there."

The crossing is seen as the main gateway for the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. Among the other border posts, it is the only crossing not controlled by Israel.

Rafah has been mostly closed since 2007 when Israel imposed a siege on Gaza after Hamas took over the Strip.

Women, children and men over 40 are now allowed to cross freely. Men aged between 18 and 40 will still require a permit, and trade is prohibited.

Egypt and Israel have blockaded the Gaza Strip since the militant Hamas movement took power there in 2007.

Israel fears weapons will be imported into Gaza, but Egypt insists it will conduct thorough searches.

The BBC's Jon Donnison, in Gaza, says the decision to ease the border controls is symbolically important.

It is another sign that the new leadership in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February, is shifting the dynamics of the Middle East.

Israel has criticised the border move, saying it raised security concerns.

But with elections coming up in Egypt, our correspondent says the change in policy is

likely to be popular with a public sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

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We feel that we live in a big jail in Gaza so now we feel a little bit more comfortable”

Ali NahallahGaza resident

Although the border will still be closed for trade, the opening of the Rafah crossing is expected to provide a major economic boost to Gaza.

Previously, only about 300 Palestinians were allowed out every day.

Gaza resident Ali Nahallah told the BBC the changes would be welcome.

"Of course this is our only entry point from Gaza to the external world," he said.

"We feel that we live in a big jail in Gaza so now we feel a little bit more comfortable and life is easier now. My kids are willing to travel to see other places other than Gaza."

The latest move comes a month after Egypt pushed through a unity deal between the two main Palestinian factions - Fatah and Hamas - something Israel also opposed.

Fatah runs the West Bank, while Hamas governs Gaza.

Analysts say that with elections looming in Egypt the new policy is likely be popular with a public largely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Egypt's co-operation in blockading Gaza was one of President Mubarak's most unpopular policies.

Egypt says the crossing will be open from 0900 to 2100 every day except Fridays and holidays.

Last year, Israel eased restrictions on goods entering Gaza, but severe shortages in the territory remain.

In 2010, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the blockade was a clear violation of international humanitarian law.

Hundreds of smuggling tunnels run under the Egyptian border with Gaza.

Gaza map