Gaza gateway to turn 'borders into bridges'

The Rafah border, Gaza’s only link to the outside world that bypasses Israel, was declared open by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Friday after being shut for nearly three months.

“It is a dream come true for us to be here to celebrate the reopening of the Rafah terminal as a free crossing between us and our brothers in Egypt,” Abbas told an official ceremony packed with Palestinian and foreign dignitaries.

The key transit route, under European Union monitoring, will open up the world to the Gaza Strip’s 1,3-million largely impoverished residents, allaying fears the territory would be transformed into a “giant prison” after a 38-year Israeli occupation.

Palestinian officials hope that a fully functioning border will help kick-start a desperately depressed economy overly dependent on Israel and help bring down unemployment that has soared to 38% in recent months.

A crowd of hopeful travellers, curious onlookers and hoards of excitable children had massed outside Rafah’s ornate wrought-iron gates, although EU officials have said the crossing will only start processing people on Saturday.

First step

EU special envoy Marc Otte said the move would help transform borders into bridges, not just between Gaza and its Arab neighbours, but also to Israel.

“What happens today is a first step towards better growth for the Palestinian economy ... and for the movement of more people and goods inside the Palestinian territories and outside,” he said.

Israel closed the terminal on September 7, five days before its troops left the territory. Following chaos at the border and unhindered crossings in the days following the pull-out, Rafah has since opened only intermittently.

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brokered a deal on November 15 during a visit to the region that will see EU monitors oversee security at Rafah by being given real-time access to closed-circuit television footage.

The Jewish state had been reluctant to allow the border to reopen, citing fears that weapons could be smuggled from Egypt into Gaza, a stronghold of Palestinian militant factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Abbas was joined at the ceremony by senior Palestinian officials, Otte, Egyptian intelligence service chief Omar Suleiman and the Gaza-based leader of the Islamist fundamentalist movement Hamas, Mahmud Zahar.

Outside the giant Bedouin-style tent where the speeches took place, dozens of Palestinian flags fluttered in the breeze as open-fronted cafés did a brisk trade, supplying tea and nargila to soldiers and civilians alike.

“We have to wait and see if opening the border helps the economy.
People here are still very poor,” sighed Ibrahim Senna, a 42-year-old tailor from Rafah, clutching the hand of his eight-year-old son.

Surrounded by mountains of bags and boxes, 35-year-old Raed Abu Naah waited to go home to the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, unable to return home to his wife and children since crossing into Gaza in September.

Business hours

But despite Friday’s ceremony, EU officials have said Rafah will only open for business for a paltry four hours from Saturday, with opening hours increased once the EU mission, eventually to number 70 people, is bolstered.

The monitor mission marks the first time the EU is involved in implementing a security-related bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

“There are 70 EU monitors, police and customs officials ... We expect to process around 500 people every four hours,” one EU official said.

While goods can be freely exported from Rafah, foreign imports to the Gaza Strip must, for security and customs reasons, transit initially via a crossing at Kerem Shalom, where the Israeli, Egyptian and Gaza borders converge.

The Palestinian Authority is slated to receive millions of dollars a year in taxes and customs duties from the terminal.

At first, Rafah will be authorised travel only for travellers with Palestinian ID cards and—after previous notice—diplomats, foreign investors, members of international organisations and humanitarian cases.—Sapa-AFP

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