Saturday, 28 May 2011

Egypt opens Rafah border with Gaza

Palestinians welcome easing of four-year blockade on Gaza Strip, in a move ushered in by Egypt's new leaders.

Egypt has reopened its Rafah border crossing 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 Strip, said there will still be restrictions in place, preventing men younger than 40 from leaving the coastal territory.

"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."

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. About 400 Gazans were reported to be waiting at the crossing.

Israeli siege

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.

Our correspondent said that Hamas used to have a list of people who needed to go through the border crossing, and that list currently has 12,000 names on it.

"That list used to be sent through to the Egyptians who then vetted it and allowed around 300 people a day through it - but it was very limited and now it will be free and open for most people," she said.

The crossing is to open to people for eight hours a day from 9:00am, apart from holidays and Fridays, giving Gazans a gateway to the world as Rafah is the only crossing that does not pass through Israel.

Commercial traffic will continue to have to pass through border points with Israel to enter the impoverished Palestinian enclave.

"In the future, Hamas says that it would like this to become a terminal for goods," our correspondent said.

"But a lot of people in Gaza say that if the Rafah border crossing becomes a commercial goods terminal, then Israel could place all responsibility for Gaza on the Egyptians, which people do not want because Gaza is still occupied by Israel."

The United Nations has called the Gaza blockade illegal and repeatedly demanded it be lifted.