Palestinians assume crossing


RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, formally reopened the Gaza Strip's border crossing with Egypt yesterday, giving Palestinians control over one of their frontiers for the first time.

"I think every Palestinian now has his passport ready in his pocket," Abbas said. "Let them come to cross at this terminal whenever they want." He spoke to more than 1,000 guests assembled under a tent, then cut a ribbon inside the refurbished terminal building at the ragged border town of Rafah.

For Palestinians, taking control of the Rafah crossing is viewed as an important step in both practical and symbolic terms in their quest for statehood.

Ordinary Palestinians in Gaza can now come and go to Egypt and the wider world without passing through Israeli security. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority will take on the responsibility of managing a sensitive border, though European Union monitors will also be present.

Rafah's reopening also settles an important question left hanging when Israel withdrew from Gaza. The pullout was completed more than two months ago, but the two sides could not agree on how the 1.4 million Palestinians would move in and out of the tiny, impoverished coastal territory.

After weeks of inconclusive talks between the sides, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brokered an agreement on Rafah and other Gaza crossing points during a visit to Jerusalem last week.

Many Gazans regard Rafah as the territory's most important outlet because it is the one crossing that does not lead to Israel.

Travelers were supposed to start passing through Rafah yesterday, but the actual opening was delayed a day, apparently to accommodate the ceremony. However, not all Gazans received the word.

Dozens of anxious travelers, many sitting on their suitcases, waited in vain outside the terminal building yesterday.

They included Attallah Abu Assi, 65, who was among 15 family members trying to reach Egypt to visit relatives. Over the past five years, he said, he and members of his family have tried about 30 times to pass through Rafah but have always been turned back. The Israelis did not give a reason, Assi said, though he suspected it was because other relatives had been arrested.

"Even if we have to wait until tomorrow, this is still a day of happiness because of all the obstacles we have faced for the last five years," he said.

Gazans go to Egypt for vacation, to study or to receive medical care, and ties have long been close. The border actually splits the town of Rafah in two, with many on the Gazan side related to those on the Egyptian side.

The Egyptians, who controlled Gaza from 1948 until 1967, are requiring Palestinian men aged 18 to 40 to obtain visas before entering Egypt, Palestinian officials said.

Many young Gazan men are unemployed, and some have links to militant groups. The Egyptians insisted on the visa requirement in order to control of the number of young Palestinian men entering the country, according to the Palestinians.

Israel closed Rafah several days before its soldiers completed a withdrawal from Gaza on Sept. 12. The next week, chaos ensued with residents on both sides of the border slipping across the frontier before the Egyptian and Palestinian security forces restored order.

Since then, Rafah has been open only intermittently. Beginning today, it will open four hours a day, and the Palestinians said they hope to keep it open 24 hours a day in the near future.

The European Union is supplying 70 monitors to help at the crossing.

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