Palestinians took control of border traffic for the first time ever yesterday, allowing thousands to cross into Egypt from the Gaza Strip in a limited opening of the joint frontier.
Israel shut down Rafah, Gaza's only gateway to the outside world, just before the last Israeli troops left the coastal strip last week after 38 years of occupation. Israel wants Rafah to remain sealed for months, for a technological upgrade and to test the Palestinians' ability to take control in Gaza.
In the meantime, Palestinians are to use an alternative, Israeli-controlled crossing that is to be opened next week, an option the Palestinians have rejected.
Under these circumstances, Israel in effect retains control over Gaza's borders. But it didn't object when the Palestinians earlier this week announced plans to pry open Rafah for two days starting yesterday, for the most part to allow for the passage of people seeking medical treatment, or studying or residing abroad.
Several thousand travelers were at Rafah yesterday morning to take advantage of that window, which is to remain open continuously until 6am Sunday.
Palestinians turned over travel documents to Palestinian border police at the gates of the once heavily guarded crossing, waiting for border officials to call them to board buses that would take them to the Rafah terminal, and from there, to Egypt.
Inside the gate, new X-ray equipment was in place, and plastic still covered the new chairs in the air-conditioned waiting area.
Manal Hatem, 36, arrived at Rafah at 3 a.m. with her 11-month-old baby and a sister-in-law, en route to a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
"This is the first time we cross without the Israelis standing over our heads, and that indeed is a blessing," Hatem said.
Aeronautical engineer Sufyan Al Ali, 28, an employee of the long-grounded Palestinian Airlines, was on his way to Jordan for a 10-day refresher course. More than two hours after arriving at the crossing, he still hadn't boarded a bus.
"This place wouldn't be so chaotic if they gave us more than two days," he said. "But at least there are no Israelis, and two days are better than nothing, for now."
Thousands of Palestinians busted through the Gaza-Egypt border last week after the last of the Israeli troops withdrew, and weapons and other contraband were smuggled into Gaza. The frontier was later sealed to stop the chaos, reinforcing Palestinians' perceptions that they are still occupied by Israel.
Rafah, an internationally recognized border crossing, is key to the economic recovery of Gaza, which was devastated by nearly five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Stable border arrangements there would encourage foreign investment in Gaza, and ensure the free flow of people, long cooped up under Israeli travel restrictions.
On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz indicated Israel would speed up its plans to reopen the crucial crossing. Israel had originally said the crossing would be closed for six months to allow for new security and customs arrangements.
But Mofaz told military officers he intends to reopen it in January.
From next week, Palestinians will be able to use the new Kerem Shalom facility at the junction of the Israeli, Egyptian and Gaza borders, defense officials said. But Palestinians insist on free access in and out of Gaza through Rafah, with no Israeli presence, and have rejected the Kerem Shalom option.