450 Gazans enter Egypt on first day of Rafah opening

Israel pursuing its security concerns directly with Cairo, says government source; Crossing opened for first time after 4 years.

rafah 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
rafah 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 crossing
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 Gaza Strip.”
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 “security reasons.”
Nabil Sha’ath, a senior Fatah official who is visiting the Gaza Strip, hailed the reopening of the border crossing as a “brave decision.”
“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 Hamas.
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.
Prime 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.
“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 government,” the statement read.
UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon issued on Friday his sternest statement to date against new protest flotillas.
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 established channels.
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 ago.
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.