Saturday welcomed the reopening of the Rafah border crossing and praised Egypt for its “brave decision” to erode the blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel.
Despite the opening of the crossing with Sinai, Israel continued to maintain an official silence, with neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the Foreign Ministry making any formal statements on the matter.RELATED:Hamas won’t oppose EU presence at border, official
saysGov’t worries after Cairo plans to open Rafah
One government source said, however, that Israel’s primary concern about the border crossing was security, “and we are pursuing those concerns directly with the Egyptians.”
By the end of Saturday, 450 people had crossed into Egypt. Only 23 were turned back because of Egyptian security concerns, a Palestinian border official said.
The Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only door to the outside world not controlled by Israel, will operate six days a week instead of five and will open two hours longer per day than formerly.
Palestinians who crossed the terminal expressed relief over the absence of Egyptian intelligence officers on the Egyptian side. They said that in the past the intelligence officers used to either arrest residents of the Gaza Strip who wished to travel to Egypt or turn them back.
Egyptian authorities said that the border crossing would stay open permanently for the first time since it was closed nearly four years ago.
The Egyptians assigned two medical teams to examine travelers and facilitate the hospitalization of patients in Egyptian hospitals.
And for the first time ever, the Egyptians decided that Palestinian males under the age of 18 and over 40 do not need visas to enter Egypt. All females are also exempt from the visa requirement.
Hamas representative Ghazi Hamad said that EU monitors who used to work at the Rafah terminal would not return to their jobs. The monitors were stationed at the terminal under an agreement between the Palestinian Authority, the EU and Israel in 2005.
The monitors left the terminal after Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007. Fatah security forces were also forced to leave the border crossing.
“The Egyptians haven’t told us anything yet about the EU monitors,” Hamad said. “We prefer that the terminal remain under the exclusive control of Palestinians and Egyptians.”
He said that the Hamas government was capable of running the border crossing in a “professional and legal way in accordance with international standards.”
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the reopening of the border crossing was the first step toward “breaking the siege on the Gaza Strip.”
Saturday’s move was also a sign of improved relations between Cairo and Hamas, he said.
Abu Zuhri expressed hope that the Egyptians would also lift the travel bans they had imposed on many Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip, including senior Hamas officials.
“We thank the Egyptian leadership for this effort and for alleviating the suffering of our people,” he said.
Abu Zuhri was one of the Hamas officials who were banned from entering Egypt.
His younger brother and former bodyguard, Youssef Abu Zuhri, died in an Egyptian prison in October 2009, and the family accused the Egyptian authorities of torturing him to death.
Another senior Hamas official, Muhammad Awad, called on Egyptian authorities to open the border crossing also for commercial trade.
“The Egyptian decision needs additional steps, especially in the field of trade,”he said. “We hope Egypt would also play a big role in the reconstruction of the
Hatem Owaida, director-general of the border crossings in
the Gaza Strip, said nearly 500 Palestinians crossed the terminal into Egypt on
Saturday. He added that the border crossing would be opened six days a week
(excluding Fridays and holidays) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sources close to
Hamas said the Egyptians returned 31 Palestinian travelers to the Gaza Strip for
Nabil Sha’ath, a senior Fatah official who is
visiting the Gaza Strip, hailed the reopening of the border crossing as a “brave
“We are very happy, it was a brave decision by Egypt to open
the crossing and to dismantle the prison imposed by Israel on the people [of
Gaza],” he said.
He said that the reopening of the terminal was one of
the results of the Egyptian-brokered reconciliation accord between Fatah and
And he rejected Israel’s fears that more arms will now be smuggled
into the territory.
“Opening this door does not mean Egypt wants to allow
bombs and explosives,” Sha’ath said. “Egypt wants to allow safe passage of
individuals who want to conduct their lives.”
Israel’s primary concern is
that the crossing will be used to smuggle weapons into Gaza.
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said during his visit to Washington last week that
there were currently about 10,000 missiles in Gaza, some of which could reach
beyond Tel Aviv.
In a related development, there was hope in Jerusalem
that the opening of the crossing would discourage the organizations trying to
put together a massive flotilla to Gaza next month to mark the one-year
anniversary of the Mavi Marmara raid.
The leaders of the Turkish,
pro-Hamas IHH organization, which organized the Mavi Marmara last year and is
behind this year’s planned flotilla as well, have said they will continue with
plans to set sail in a matter of weeks.
Kadima on Saturday slammed the
government for allowing the opening of the Rafah crossing, a move the opposition
party said effectively ends the blockade of Gaza.
“The breaking of the
blockade, with no coordination with Israel, and against its will, constitutes a
diplomatic failure of the Netanyahu government – that because of its diplomatic
weakness and inability to create coordination and cooperation with international
parties, has left Israel isolated, in a position of weakened security, while
Hamas has gotten stronger,” a statement released by the party said.
again it has been proven that the Netanyahu government talks tough against
Hamas, but actually Hamas has become stronger than it ever was under this
government,” the statement read.
UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon issued
on Friday his sternest statement to date against new protest
Ban, according to a statement put out by his office, sent
letters to all the governments around the Mediterranean Sea calling on them to
use their influence to discourage such flotillas, which he said “carry the
potential to escalate into violent conflict.”
Ban said assistance and
goods destined to Gaza should be channeled through legitimate crossings and
He also called on Israel to “act responsibly and
with caution to avoid any violent incident.”
Another statement from Ban’s
office said that the committee he established to look into the Mavi Marmara
incident, which is headed by former New Zealand premier Geoffrey Palmer, would
“extend the working period of the panel.”
The committee, co-chaired by
former Columbian president Alvaro Uribe, and which includes both an Israel and
Turkish representative, was supposed to issue its finding some two weeks
According to Israeli officials, the Turks opposed the findings
because they were not unequivocally against Israel, and said there was legal
justification for the naval blockade.
According to Ban’s statement, “all
four members of the panel agreed that more time was needed for them to work on
their final report, and to explore the possibility of reaching consensus on the
outcome.”Reuters contributed to this report.