Egypt reopens Rafah border crossing with Gaza

Egypt reopened its Rafah border crossing with Gaza today, allowing people to cross freely for the first time in four years, in a move hailed by Hamas but criticized by Israel.

Among the first to cross the reopened border post were two ambulances ferrying patients from the hitherto-blockaded Gaza Strip for treatment in Egypt as well as a minibus carrying a dozen visitors.
The crossing was to open to people for eight hours a day from 9am local time, apart from vacations and Fridays, giving Gazans a gateway to the world as Rafah is the only crossing which does not pass through Israel.
Under the long-awaited change, which excludes the flow of goods, people under the age of 18 or older than 40 require only a visa to pass, but those between 18 and 40 still need security clearance, officials said.
Commercial traffic will continue to have to pass through border points with Israel to enter the impoverished Palestinian enclave.
Egyptian foreign minister Nabil al Arabi announced in April that the crossing would reopen permanently, stressing this would help ease the blockade imposed by Israel.
The border has remained largely shut since June 2006 when Israel imposed a tight blockade on Gaza after militants snatched Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was still being held.
The blockade was tightened a year later when Hamas seized control of the territory, ousting forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
The United Nations has called the blockade illegal and repeatedly demanded it be lifted.
The decision to permanently reopen the Rafah crossing came more than three months after former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned under pressure following 18 days of massive street protests against his rule.
It was hailed by Gaza's Islamist rulers, Hamas, and the European Union, but Israel greeted the news with trepidation.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said Thursday the move was ''a courageous and responsible decision which falls in line with Palestinian and Egyptian public opinion.''
The EU also praised the move and said it was in consultations with Egypt, the Palestinians and Israel about returning its team of advisers to monitor activity along the frontier.
But Israel expressed concern, with Home Front defense minister Matan Vilnai telling public radio it would create ''a very problematic situation.''

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