Egypt opens Rafah border crossing as regional power shifts

Lifting the blockade is like a release from prison for Gaza residents.

A Palestinian woman waits to cross into Egypt on Thursday. With Egypt lifting border restrictions, the passage will be easier.
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GAZA CITY //The opening of Egypt's border crossing into Gaza today will bring relief to the territory's 1.6 million Palestinians, who have spent four years living under a crushing Israeli blockade.

Israel, along with US backing and Egyptian support, applied stifling sanctions on Gaza following Hamas' takeover in 2007. As a result, Gazans have been hemmed in by travel restrictions and deprived of basic commodities.

But the decision by Egypt's transitional rulers to permanently open the Rafah crossing is not only a sign that Israel's stranglehold on the territory may be drawing to a close, it is also symbolic of the regional power shift brought about by the Arab world's popular uprisings.

Israel relied heavily on the support of Egypt's deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, who was also a dependable ally of the US, to enforce the sanctions against Hamas.

The Islamist group, a foe of the secular-minded Mr Mubarak, is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and the European Union and the border opening has rankled both Israeli and American officials.

But for Gazans, an easing of the blockade has stirred new hope.

"The last time I left Gaza was in March 2007," said Hasan Zeyada, a psychologist and manager of the Gaza Community Centre, which runs mental and other health programmes.

"Just the expectation that the border will be opened normally means that the people will feel that they can finally move in and out of this big prison."

Egypt's official Middle East News Agency announced a raft of changes to the crossing's requirements. Women and children, as well as men over 40, will no longer need visas and can pass freely. As many as 1,000 people are expected to pass through it daily, up from the sporadic 300 or less, many of them students or the infirm, who were allowed through before.

From a psychological perspective, Mr Zeyada said, the move would help reduce the "high levels of stress, trauma, and general pressure on Gazan society".

Politically, though, others questioned how far Egypt could go in scaling back its Gaza restrictions before it risked antagonising Israel, with which it maintains a peace treaty. Israel has long been wary of weapons passing into Hamas hands from Egypt and has used this as a reason for imposing its restrictions.

"Egypt is still committed to the Camp David agreement and the rules regarding the movement of people and material," Talal Okal, a political analyst in Gaza, said in reference to the Egypt-Israel peace accord.

There were still few details about who would be allowed through the crossing, as well as the issue of identification documents for Palestinians, he said. While the documents are distributed by officials in Ramallah, the de facto West Bank capital, ultimately it is Israel that decides who receives the documents, necessary for travel.

Mr Okal said the lack of detail may have been a result of the more pressing concern of Palestinian officials in demonstrating the benefit of the recently struck reconciliation accord between Hamas and its rival in the West Bank, Fatah.

"It's a first step that they are using to show to the people," he said. "The people are still waiting for more such steps from the Egyptians, but that does not mean the Egyptians are going to challenge Israel by completely resolving the problem of the siege."

There is also a question of whether the opening will increase the flow of goods and construction materials, the importation of which has been heavily curtailed.

Naji Sarhan, Gaza's deputy minister of public works, said the territory is short of about 100,000 housing units because of the blockade. This has been aggravated by high population growth and the destruction of buildings from Israel's three-week war that began in December 2008. His ministry has been unable to begin a number of housing projects because of the lack of construction materials, such as cement, rebar and aggregate.

"Until now, we don't know what's happening with this," he said.

Still others worry about how, and if, they can actually enter Egypt once they reach Rafah. For those who could in recent years, the act of actually getting into Egypt became an hours-long ordeal when Mr Mubarak's border regime was in place.

"To wait an entire day just to cross 100 metres, it chokes you. It's an overly complex procedure. The passport has to go from one person to another to another. Too much time!" said Said Zuroub, a former mayor of Rafah.

"What we want is a solid, easy procedure."

Still, he was quick to express his satisfaction with Egypt's decision.

"If the border's open to all the sick people, the students, the families, if they can go on holiday in Egypt, then of course we welcome this freedom," he said.