Hundreds of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip entered Egypt as the border crossing was opened permanently for the first time in four years amid Israeli concerns that the move strengthens Hamas’s rule of the area.
About 300 Palestinians crossed into Egypt this morning, and “it was smooth and easy,” said a Hamas police officer at the crossing who gave his name only as Abu Osama. “If the situation remains as smooth as it was today, I don’t see any future problems.”
Egypt’s decision to scale back crossing restrictions for the Gaza Strip has been welcomed by the Hamas Islamic movement, which controls the Palestinian enclave, while raising concern in Israel that the wider border access poses a security threat.
“We will obviously be looking to preserve security arrangements at the border and hope nothing will be done to allow Hamas to empower itself and to reinforce its terrorist infrastructures,” Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a phone interview. “The Israeli position has been made known to all relevant authorities, including in Egypt.”
In addition to reducing restrictions at the Rafah crossing, Egypt will waive visa requirements for most Palestinians entering from other departure points, except neighboring Libya, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported this week. Egypt’s move was the “right decision” to help the Gazan population “ease its suffering,” Hamas said on May 26.
Israel maintains an embargo on the Gaza coast in what it says is an effort to prevent weapons smuggling. The government has restricted the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza through its own border crossings since Hamas, the Islamist political party that has governed Gaza Strip since winning elections in January 2006, gained full control of the area in 2007.
Egypt has also restricted the passage of Gazans through its own crossing since Hamas clashed with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, breaking apart their unity government.
The Egyptian border opening is part of the government’s efforts to back the Palestinian groups’ reconciliation, MENA said. The new Egyptian leadership, which has taken a more favorable approach to Hamas since President Hosni Mubarak was forced out in February following anti-government protests, brokered an agreement between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo this month that paves the way for a new unity government.
EU’s Hamas View
Hamas is defined as a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
In easing the border restrictions, Egypt is restoring the rules that existed before the 2007 Gaza clashes, with only Palestinian men aged 18 to 40 requiring visas, MENA said. As a result of the turmoil in Libya, all Palestinians entering from there will also need visas, the agency said.
Abu Zeyad Yassin, a 56-year-old Palestinian from Gaza who holds Romanian citizenship, said he was returning to Romania today via Egypt after visiting his parents.
“My mother was sick and I came to see her, and after she recovered I decided to return back to Romania,” Yassin said. “My flight from Cairo is scheduled tomorrow, and I’m so glad that the restrictions were eased and we can now easily enter and leave Gaza.”
Tunnels dug underneath the Egypt-Gaza border have become a central means of smuggling goods and people back and forth to evade restrictions at the Rafah crossing. Israel says the tunnels are also used to bring in weapons and the rockets that are fired into the country’s south.
Humanitarian and pro-Palestinian groups have repeatedly tried to break the sea blockade by sailing ships toward Gaza. Nine Turkish activists from one such flotilla were killed in a clash with the Israel navy a year ago. Another Gaza-bound aid flotilla is scheduled to leave Turkey next month.
Israel eased restrictions on essential goods and fuel brought into Gaza via its Kerem Shalom crossing over the past year, in part as a reaction to international pressure spurred by the flotilla clash.