- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 27, 2005

RAFAH TERMINAL, Gaza Strip — It was a smooth debut yesterday for the first Palestinian-run border. Hundreds of travelers zipped through passport control without having to submit to Israeli security checks, savoring their new freedom after 38 years of military occupation.

The West Bank also witnessed a milestone: Corruption-tainted veterans of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah movement were swept aside by younger activists in Fatah’s first primary, signaling a change of generations and the rise of imprisoned uprising leader Marwan Barghouti.

The opening of Gaza’s gate to the world and the revamping of the movement that was founded by Yasser Arafat could boost Mr. Abbas’ chances of beating back a challenge by the militant Hamas in Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.

At noon yesterday, the Rafah terminal on the Gaza-Egypt border opened for the first time since Israel’s pullout from the coastal strip in the summer. Under a U.S.-brokered deal, the Palestinians are in charge, with backup from European monitors. Israel watches over closed-circuit TV, but cannot veto travelers.

Jihad Zanoun, 30, a government employee, was the first to cross. “It is the beginning of a new era that will open a new horizon for me,” said Mr. Zanoun, who was visiting relatives in Egypt.

The border was open for just four hours yesterday — a day after Palestinians took control with an inauguration ceremony — to give European monitors more time to settle in, but it will eventually operate around the clock.

European officials said 1,587 persons crossed on the first day.

“We are extremely happy,” said Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana. “It has gone very smoothly.”

For fenced-in Gazans, the opening of the border between Gaza and Egypt marked the most dramatic improvement in their lives since Israel withdrew from the coastal strip in September.

Before the pullout, Israelis security checks at Rafah often caused delays of hours or days. During the last five years of fighting, Israel also imposed travel restrictions on Gazans between the ages of 18-45, and most couldn’t leave.

Starting in mid-December, Palestinians also will be able to travel between the West Bank and Gaza for the first time in five years, at first in Israeli-escorted bus convoys.

Construction is to begin on a Gaza seaport, and the United States has urged Israel to reach quick agreement with the Palestinians on reopening Gaza’s international airport.

These changes could translate into growing support for Mr. Abbas ahead of the parliament election. Hamas has belittled Mr. Abbas’ nonviolent approach as ineffective and has boasted it drove Israel out of Gaza by force.

Fatah’s “young guard,” led by Mr. Barghouti, swept primaries for the parliament list held in parts of the West Bank, preliminary results indicated yesterday.

In Ramallah, Mr. Barghouti won 34,000 out of 40,000 votes, affirming his status as the most popular Fatah politician and possible Abbas successor.

Mr. Barghouti, 46, is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for his involvement in shooting attacks that killed five Israelis.

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