300 Gazans enter Egypt in first hour of Rafah opening

Crossing opened for first time after 4 years; Hamas official says nearly 500 total Palestinians cross, daily numbers expected to triple.

rafah 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
rafah 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt opened the Rafah crossing on the Sinai-Gaza border after four years, allowing 300 Palestinians to pass through in the first hour.
Hamas and Fatah on Saturday welcomed the reopening of the crossing, praising Egypt for its “brave decision.”
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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 also 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 women are also exempt from acquiring a visa to enter Egypt.
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 as part of 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 then.
“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 that the reopening of the border crossing was the first step toward “breaking the siege on the Gaza Strip.”
He said that Saturday’s move was also a sign of improved relations between Cairo and Hamas. He expressed hope that the Egyptians would also lift the travel 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,” Abu Zuhri said.
Abu Zuhri was one of the Hamas officials who were banned from entering Egypt. His younger brother died in an Egyptian prison and the family accused the Egyptian authorities of torturing him to death.
Another senior Hamas official, Mohammed Awad, called on Egyptian authorities to open the border crossing also to 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 Gaza Strip.”
Hatem Owaida, director-general of the border crossings in the Gaza Strip, said than nearly 500 Palestinians crossed the terminal into Egypt on Saturday. He added that the border crossing would be opened six days every week from 10 am to 17.00 pm.
Sources close to Hamas claimed that the Egyptians returned 31 Palestinian travelers to the Gaza Strip for “security reasons.”
Earlier Saturday, Kadima slammed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's 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.
"Once 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 regime," the statement added.
Yaakov Katz and JPost.com staff contributed to this report.