RAFAH (AFP) â€” The Rafah border terminal between the Gaza Strip and Egypt opened to a flood of excited Palestinians on Saturday, giving them a gate to the outside world for the first time in almost three months.
At least 2,000 Palestinians â€” some leaving the tiny strip of territory for the first time in their lives â€” queued for the opening of the EU-supervised crossing.
By the time the gate closed at the end of the historic day, exactly 1,587 people had crossed the border in both directions, the EU announced.
“I have been waiting for this moment for years,” grinned 54-year-old Ali Shurab, a red-and-white keffiyeh headdress slung around his shoulders. “I am really happy to be here today because I was banned by the Israelis from crossing for 25 years for ‘security’ reasons.”
Rafah opens up the world to the Gaza Strip’s 1.3 million largely impoverished residents after fears the territory would be transformed into a “giant prison” following the end of Israel’s 38-year occupation.
The opening also marks the first time the Palestinians have been in control of an international border, without having to run the gauntlet of Israeli security checks.
“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,” Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said at an official opening on Friday.
Outside the tall wrought-iron gate at the entrance to the terminal compound, the teeming masses were pushing and shoving on Saturday to hand in their passports at a small bullet-ridden booth before waiting their turn to enter.
Men, women and children were squatting on the dusty floor amid mountains of luggage, many smoking endless cigarettes and waiting for border officials to open the gates.
Scores of yellow taxis, their luggage racks piled high with battered suitcases, plastic bags and bedding, were parked close by, waiting to ferry the travellers and their belongings into the sprawling terminal compound.
First to enter was Naim Baaya, a 53-year-old wheelchair-bound mother from the Jabaliya refugee camp, who said: “We have been here since the early morning â€” we have been planning this trip for two weeks.”
Mohammed Arubi, 26, said he was taking his mother to hospital.
“I feel amazing. It will be the first time I ever left Gaza,” he said, dressed impeccably in a shirt and red tie to mark the occasion.
Just before the opening, EU Middle East envoy Marc Otte arrived at the terminal with General Osama Assar, head of security at the crossing.
“We are here as partners, as friends and we respect your sovereignty,” Otte said.
Palestinian officials hope a fully functioning border will help kickstart a desperately depressed economy overly dependent on Israel and help bring down unemployment that has soared to almost 40 per cent in recent months.
The Rafah terminal is opening for the first time without direct Israeli control since a border crossing was established after Israel signed a peace deal with Egypt in 1979.
The crossing will initially operate for four hours a day. It will run under Palestinian and Egyptian management and supervised by 70 European Union observers.
Israel finally left the Gaza Strip in mid-September but since then has kept the gates shute to the territory, which has no seaport and a mothballed international airport that was bombarded by Israeli war planes four years ago.
Israel had long refused to reopen the border, citing fears that weapons could be smuggled from Egypt into Gaza, a stronghold of factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Efforts to negotiate an agreement with Israel for a reopening foundered until the personal intervention of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who managed to secure a deal during a visit to the region on November 15.
International figures including UN chief Kofi Annan and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana hailed the border opening.
“The opening of Rafah is a great opportunity, it is a turning point,” Solana said Friday. “For the first time, Palestinians assume the responsibility to manage external borders. It is an important step towards eventual statehood.”