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Rafah Crossing Changes Hands

Palestinians assume control of the border terminal, but with European oversight.

November 26, 2005|Laura King and Fayed abu Shammalah | Special to The Times

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — With heartfelt cheers from onlookers and the symbolic snipping of a ribbon, the Palestinian Authority on Friday assumed authority for the first time over an international frontier, between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

The formal inauguration of the refurbished Rafah crossing, which is to open to travelers today, was hailed by Palestinians for serving not only as a crucial link to the outside world but also as an emblem of statehood aspirations.

Under a deal brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week during a visit to the region, the border terminal is to operate under the oversight of European monitors. Securing the approval of Israel was something of a diplomatic feat, because they had long been resistant to the presence of outside observers in the Palestinian territories.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, looking uncharacteristically ebullient, helped cut the ribbon to inaugurate the crossing before 1,200 guests.

"My Palestinian brethren have got their passports at the ready, and can come to this crossing any time they are ready," said Abbas, who symbolically offered his own travel documents for inspection.

The opening of Rafah is an important boost for Abbas' government, which needs tangible improvements in Palestinians' daily lives as proof that his pragmatic approach to dealings with Israel works.

Until now, Palestinians had seen little real change result from Israel's withdrawal of troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, which was completed in September. Since then, Palestinian frustration has been building over continued Israeli restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza.

Friday's ceremony offered a glimpse of the complex interplay between the Palestinian Authority and the militant group Hamas, which is fielding candidates for the first time in parliamentary elections set for Jan. 25.

Hamas expressed scorn for the U.S.-brokered agreement, which not only opened Rafah but provided for Palestinian travel between the West Bank and Gaza. The group said the terms conceded too much to Israel. But Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, attentive to Palestinian public opinion, attended the ribbon-cutting.

"We are participating today because the reopening of the Rafah crossing is one of the achievements of the resistance," Zahar said, echoing the much-sounded Hamas theme that the militant groups deserved credit for driving Israel out of Gaza.

Abbas, even as he hailed the crossing's opening, took pains to portray it as only a first step.

"We must not delude ourselves that we have full sovereignty in the Gaza Strip, because sovereignty ... should be on all our lands," he said.

Initially, the crossing will be open for only four hours a day because the European observer team will not be at its full strength of 70 people until mid-December.

Israel will not have forces stationed at the border, but will be able to view videotape footage of the crossing in a nearby liaison office. Israel will be able to request that Palestinian forces and European observers detain and question someone who appears suspicious, but it will not be able to veto anyone's entry.

Though kept at a distance by a heavy police deployment for the ceremony, would-be travelers were already heading for Rafah, hoping to be among the first to cross into Egypt. The frontier has been mostly closed since the Israeli pullout was completed.

During the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the crossing was often shut for weeks at a time, stranding thousands on both sides. Palestinians who did manage to make their way across -- often to visit family, shop or travel to airports in the Sinai and Cairo -- were subject to rigorous searches and questioning by Israeli troops.

Despite Israeli control, Rafah was a smugglers' paradise, a prime conduit for weapons, ammunition and illicit cash ferried across the border by Palestinian militants.

In his speech, Abbas did not refer directly to Rafah's Wild West reputation, but warned that lawlessness would not be tolerated, not least because it could hamper a much-needed flow of foreign capital into the impoverished coastal territory.

"We want investors to feel safe enough to start projects in Gaza," Abbas said.

Times staff writer King reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abu Shammalah from Rafah.

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