Egypt yesterday reopened its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, allowing people to cross freely for the first time in four years, in a move hailed by Hamas, but criticized by Israel.
Among the first to cross the reopened border post were two ambulances ferrying patients from the hitherto-blockaded Gaza Strip for treatment in Egypt, as well as a minibus carrying a dozen visitors, a correspondent reported.
The crossing is open to people for eight hours a day from 9am, apart from holidays and Fridays, giving Gazans a gateway to the world as Rafah is the only crossing which does not pass through Israel.
Under the long-awaited change, which excludes the flow of goods, people under the age of 18 or older than 40 will require only a visa to pass, but those between 18 and 40 will still need security clearance, officials said.
Commercial traffic will continue to have to pass through border points with Israel to enter the impoverished Palestinian enclave.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi announced in April that the crossing would reopen permanently, stressing this would help ease the blockade imposed by Israel.
The border has remained largely shut since June 2006 when Israel imposed a tight blockade on Gaza after militants snatched Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still being held.
The blockade was tightened a year later when Hamas seized control of the territory, ousting forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
The UN has called the blockade illegal and repeatedly demanded it be lifted.
The decision to permanently reopen the Rafah crossing came more than three months after former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned under pressure following 18 days of massive street protests against his rule.
It was hailed by Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, and the EU, but Israel has greeted the news with trepidation.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said on Thursday the move was “a courageous and responsible decision which falls in line with Palestinian and Egyptian public opinion.”
“We hope that it is a step towards the complete lifting of the siege on Gaza,” he said, a day after Egypt announced it would open the crossing on a permanent basis to ease the blockade which has been in place since 2006.
The EU also praised the move and said it was in consultations with Egypt, the Palestinians and Israel about returning its team of advisers to monitor activity along the frontier.
However, Israel expressed concern, with Israeli Home Front Defence Minister Matan Vilnai telling public radio it would create “a very problematic situation.”