For Gazans, crossing border with pride

With Israel no longer in charge of security, there are fewer delays and more optimism


RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- The Israeli flag no longer flies above this border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Israeli soldiers and police are gone, too. But perhaps the most striking change since the Palestinians took control of the arrivals and departures terminal after nearly 40 years of Israeli occupation is on the faces of the Palestinian travelers.

They are relaxed, often cheerful and, above all, proud.

For the first time, Gazans are free to come and go without Israeli-controlled security checks or the delays and humiliations that became one of the most common hardships of Palestinian life.

Instead of approaching the border with trepidation, Palestinians see this crossing point as a significant symbolic and practical step forward in their journey to statehood.

"Thank God; it's excellent," said Asmi Gomma, a 45-year-old contractor from Rafah on a recent afternoon as he pushed a cart piled high with suitcases out of the terminal and into Gaza after a week visiting family in Egypt.

"It didn't take but one hour to get across," he said, recalling trips to the border when it was under Israeli control and security precautions and rigorous questioning by Israeli officials would lead to waits sometimes lasting days.

Munir Abu Abdo, a 42-year-old landlord from Gaza City, also breezed through, unlike the time he was stranded on the Egyptian side for nearly a month waiting to get home. The only delay on a recent trip across was being asked to pay duties on some home supplies he bought in Egypt.

"I'm happy even if I have to pay customs. The money is going to my own people," he said.

Banners strung up on the road leading to Rafah declare the ambitions Palestinians have for this border: "The border of hope," "The way to freedom" and "The way to a bright future."

Such optimism in this battered sliver of land that is home to 1.3 million people is a significant achievement for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas - who has struggled during the past year to demonstrate to Palestinians that tireless negotiations, not violence, will yield improvements to their lives.

Not that negotiations have been easy. It took five months of talk and a final push by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to reach an agreement with Israel that Palestinians would control the border with the assistance of European Union monitors. Israeli authorities are allowed to observe who is crossing the border through a closed-circuit TV link and can raise concerns about people using the crossing, but the final decision about who may enter is up to the Palestinians.

The U.S.-brokered agreement also calls for Israel to allow bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank beginning Dec. 15, another vast improvement for Palestinian families who have been separated during the past five years of violence.

Since the crossing opened under Palestinian control Nov. 26, it has operated for five hours a day and handled about 9,000 people in all. But less than a week after it opened, a dozen or more militants wanted by Israel, including a brother of the Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, entered Gaza through Rafah, according to Israeli officials.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz threatened last week to close the crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel if the Palestinians did not tighten controls at the border.

One of the problems, Israelis said, is that the video link Israelis monitor is delayed by several minutes so that by the time they determine there are concerns about a traveler, it's too late to stop him. Palestinians, EU officials and Israelis are working to change the system.

Israelis are also growing concerned that militants may use the Rafah crossing as a backdoor to Israel, crossing from Gaza into Egypt so they can sneak across Israeli's more porous border with Egypt to smuggle arms or carry out attacks.

The 120-mile-long Egyptian-Israeli border is protected by occasional army posts and some fencing, and has long been a popular gateway for smugglers entering Israel with illegal workers, prostitutes and drugs.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said the government is considering several approaches to securing the border, including building a security fence.

For its part, the Palestinians have opened an inquiry into the reports of militants entering the coastal strip.

Palestinian officials are acutely aware of the intense overseas interest in the border and appear to desperately want to show the world that they can make it a success.

Unlike so much of the Gaza Strip where chaos reigns, the border is a striking oasis of calm and order. Palestinian police, security and border officials stand at their posts in crisp new uniforms. The arrival and departure halls are kept immaculate. Smoking is forbidden.

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