Rafah crossing - Reuters - Dec. 3, 2007
Palestinian leave through the Rafah border between Gaza and Egypt on Dec. 3, 2007. Photo by Reuters
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The Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt officially opened for Palestinians on Saturday, marking the first time the crossing has officially opened since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip four years ago.

For all intents and purposes, the opening of the crossing spells the end of Israel's closure of the Strip, although Israel continues to prohibit crossing into its territory via the Erez crossing.

The opening of the Rafah crossing is seen as a gesture by Egypt to Hamas, and as a sign of closer ties between Hamas and the new regime in Cairo.

Although Israel objects to the move, it is not seen as causing major security damage. Terrorists and weapons have already been moving for years through tunnels under the Rafah crossing.

Some 450 Palestinians crossed yesterday from Gaza to Egypt under new rules implemented by Egypt. The rules do not limit the crossing of women, children or men over the age of 40, but men between the ages of 18 and 40 require a visa. Residents of the West Bank are subject to the same rules when crossing at Rafah.

With the new procedures, Egypt has formalized the policy it already has had in place for the last few months. In reality, the new procedures amount to an extention of the de facto situation of the past few weeks: The crossing will now be open two more hours a day than before, and six days a week instead of five.

It was Egypt that decided in 2007 to close the Rafah crossing, mainly out of concern that the Hamas takeover in Gaza could undermine stability in Sinai. Since then, except for humanitarian cases, Egypt has kept the border closed, including to senior Hamas officials, as a means of putting pressure on Hamas and as a penalty for failing to reunite with Fatah.

Hamas, which apparently expected thousands at Rafah, replaced the taxis, which usually ferry people across the border, with buses, leading to complaints from taxi drivers.

Senior Hamas leaders were also on hand at the crossing yesterday. The organization's spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu-Zuhri, said he hoped the open crossing would bring a stream of Hamas supporters to Gaza.

Hamas is presenting the opening of the crossing as an achievement. However, in light of its reconciliation with Fatah, the opening is not expected to have dramatic implications for the group's popularity, although Hamas will no longer be able to use Israel's closure of the Strip as a rallying point.

The opening of the crossing breaks the 2005 Rafah agreement between Israel and Egypt, enacted after Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip and under heavy pressure by then-U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. For 18 months, European Union observers operated at the crossing, and Israel was able to observe it from a distance.

Israel felt the observers contributed very little to security.

Hamas has now refused to allow the observers back, saying Egyptian supervision is enough.

The defense establishment said Egypt's decision comes as no surprise, since Cairo had announced its intention to open the crossing three months ago. Even during ousted president Hosni Mubarak's regime, Egypt did not take significant action to stop terrorists and weapons from being smuggled through tunnels.

The Israeli closure was directed mainly at merchandise, rather than at weapons smuggling, and it never stopped terrorists and terror leaders from entering the Strip.

Israel also eased the closure considerably in June last year due to international criticism surrounding its response to the flotilla carrying aid to Gaza.

The opening is therefore seen mainly as a declarative move, heralding closer ties between Hamas and the new regime in Cairo.