RAFAH TERMINAL, Gaza Strip — Palestinians took control of a border for the first time yesterday with the festive opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, a milestone on their rocky path to independence and a rare moment of joy for fenced-in Gazans.
The inauguration of the crossing, attended by scores of local and international dignitaries, was hailed as the beginning of a new era for Palestinians and especially the people of the Gaza Strip, very demoralized after five years of bloody fighting with Israel.
“From this moment, we feel that we are free,” said Fathia Najar, 55, one of a group of Palestinian travelers waiting to cross the border when the terminal starts operations today. “Before this, we lived in a jail.”
The opening of the border — under an agreement with Israel — bolstered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ message that independence can only be won through negotiations and gave him a boost ahead of Jan. 25 parliamentary elections being fiercely contested by the Islamic Hamas group.
Israel shut the Rafah crossing before pulling out of Gaza in September, ending 38 years of occupation.
International officials made reopening Rafah under Palestinian control a top priority to give Gazans concrete proof their lives were improving after the withdrawal. Israel had been reluctant to let the Palestinians man the crossing, fearing that militants and weapons would be able to cross.
Israel gave in and agreed last week — after months of international mediation and a final push by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — to hand the Palestinians control of the border under the gaze of European monitors.
In preparation for the opening, Palestinian workers renovated the terminal, painting walls, replacing ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights and installing blocks of computers. Rows of blue and orange chairs filled the hall. New metal detectors and X-ray belts stood nearby.
A new banner over the entrance read, “Rafah crossing: the gateway to freedom.”
The crossing was not expected to have an immediate impact on Gaza’s economy. Eventually, though, Gazans will be able to export major cargo through Rafah, providing an alternative to the Karni cargo crossing into Israel, said Nigel Roberts, the World Bank’s regional director.
Palestinians will only be allowed to import goods from Egypt through a terminal being built at the junction of Israel, Egypt and Gaza that will be partially controlled by Israel. Israel also retains control of Gaza’s coast and its airspace.
The Rafah crossing initially will operate only four hours a day until all 70 European monitors can arrive and get settled. Eventually, it will be open 24 hours a day, Palestinian officials said.
Under the agreement reached last week, Israel is to let more Palestinian cargo pass through Karni and bus convoys can travel between the West Bank and Gaza starting Dec. 15. It links the two territories for the first time in more than five years. The Palestinians also were given permission to begin building a Gaza seaport.