Thousands cross border at Rafah

Opening delayed, but first full day goes "very smoothly" according to EU.

rafah sign 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
rafah sign 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt officially opened for business on Saturday, a day after Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas inaugurated the terminal during a large ceremony. Hamas leaders and activists from the Gaza Strip were invited to Friday's ceremony together with European and Arab government officials and diplomats. The guests included General Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence, and Marc Otte, the European Union Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process. The EU said 1,587 Palestinians crossed the border during its first full day of operations under Palestinian control. "We are extremely happy," said Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. "It has gone very smoothly." Hundreds of excited passengers had lined up at the border since the early morning to await the opening of the terminal. PA officials hailed the opening of the border as "an historic" move. "It is a dream come true for us to be here to celebrate the re-opening of the Rafah terminal as a free crossing between us and our brothers in Egypt," Abbas said in a speech. "We will no longer see people queuing up in long lines waiting for a long time to cross out or in - the terminal will be free." He also warned against turning the Gaza Strip into a "big prison," adding that the opening of the border was only one step toward establishing an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. The opening of the terminal was achieved thanks to the struggle and sacrifices of the Palestinians, he added. Abbas later had his diplomatic passport stamped in a symbolic move aimed at showing that the Palestinians had sovereignty over the terminal. PA Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan said that Palestinians would be able to cross the border without Israeli intervention. The PA, for its part, won't prevent any Palestinian from crossing the border, he stressed. A senior government official called the opening of the Rafah passage under the supervision of European monitors, "a welcome development." But at the same time, he said, "we have to watch it with great caution and circumspection to see if the inspection established by the Europeans is going to be effective." He said that while Israel desired the free passage of people in and out of Gaza at the Egyptian border, it feared that such passage would also "allow for the free passage of terrorists and weapons." He predicted that in the first few days people would be working hard to show that the system worked. It's even possible that it would operate smoothly until the January Palestinian Legislative Council elections are over, he said. But "we have to see what happens afterwards," he added. Otte described the opening of the crossing as the first in a string of developmental steps to improve the Palestinian economy. "It is a great day, and a historic achievement that was brought about by a number of well-intentioned people," he added, pointing out that the EU provided the crossing with an elite group of highly qualified specialists to help the PA supervise it. "We are responsible for the borders, and we are here to help and to make better strides towards building a harbor and operating the airport," he added. Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said that the opening of the Rafah crossing was a "victory" for the Palestinians. Zahar was among several Hamas leaders who were invited by Abbas to the opening ceremony. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, who also attended the event, said it was premature to talk about the return of Damascus-based Hamas leaders to the Gaza Strip. Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.