JERUSALEM – Palestinians celebrated a step toward independence from Israel on Friday with a jubilant ceremony opening the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, their first self-governed passage to the outside world.
The event marked a milestone in the long Palestinian-Israeli conflict by giving a Palestinian government control over an international border crossing for the first time. The opening is the most tangible benefit the Palestinian Authority has gained from Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza two months ago, an evacuation that ended a 38-year Israeli presence but left its borders under Israel’s control.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who stands to benefit politically from Rafah’s opening, told roughly 1,200 Palestinians, European diplomats and Egyptian officials who will help monitor the border that the measure of autonomy was “a dream that has come true for us.” But he said the opening was a modest step and pledged further progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state that would include the more populous West Bank.
“Our sovereignty is not yet complete,” Abbas said. “Sovereignty cannot be divided. It has to include both parts of the homeland and make them one territory.”
The Rafah crossing has tremendous social importance for the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, many of whom have family on the far side of the heavily fortified frontier that Israel had patrolled since occupying the strip in the 1967 Middle East war.
Before its evacuation of 8,500 Jewish settlers and the soldiers who protected them, Israel regulated traffic through Rafah. The crossing was frequently closed for long periods, disrupting people’s lives and sometimes leaving Palestinians stranded for weeks at a time.
Israeli officials had withdrawn from the frontier after Egyptian and Palestinian security forces pledged to maintain the closure until a new crossing could be established in six months.
In the days following Israel’s departure, thousands of Palestinians stormed through the barrier in a chaotic demonstration of newfound freedom. But several days of unchecked crossings, marked by family reunions, smuggling and afternoons at the beach along the Sinai coast, ended when embarrassed Egyptian and Palestinian security forces restored the barrier.
Since then, the crossing has remained sealed while Israeli and Palestinian delegations negotiated an agreement to open Rafah and the cargo terminal at Karni between Gaza and Israel, a passage of far greater economic importance to Palestinian farmers and factory owners who sell most of their goods outside the impoverished strip. Under pressure from special Middle East envoy James Wolfensohn and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israel agreed on Nov. 15 to open Rafah and increase cargo traffic at Karni in time for the winter harvest.
Under the Rafah agreement, a team from the European Union will monitor people using the crossing from a control room at the site. Israeli officials will be allowed to watch people crossing on a closed-circuit television feed at a terminal several miles to the east. But Israeli officials will not have a veto over who is allowed in or out of the strip, a right they sought during weeks of talks.
“Hopefully, this is the beginning of creating a situation in which there will be a constant flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “Israel understands that such a flow of goods and people is an integral aspect of making Palestinian-controlled Gaza a success. The fundamental truth is that a successful Gaza is key to moving forward on the peace process.”