Palestinians waiting to cross border - AP
Palestinians waiting to cross into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing. Photo by AP
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Egyptian authorities yesterday announced the official opening of the Rafah crossing point, on the border of the Gaza Strip and Egypt. On the Palestinian side, the Rafah crossing will be operated and guarded by policemen deployed by the Hamas government.

Under the Mubarak regime, Egypt vehemently opposed using Hamas guards at Rafah and demanded that the crossing point remain closed until Palestinian Authority personnel were deployed at the venue. Haaretz has learned that the decision to reopen Rafah was taken in recent weeks and discussed at the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation meetings. It was the Palestinian Authority's consent to opening Rafah that was one of the incentives used to persuade Hamas leaders to sign the reconciliation accord.

The Egyptian government announced yesterday that the crossing point will be open each day from 9:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M., apart from Fridays and official holidays. According to the announcement, the decision to reopen Rafah reflects Egyptians efforts to bring an end to internal strife among the Palestinians and strengthen the reconciliation accord. The decision confers significant benefits to Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip. Among other things, women crossing from Gaza into Egypt will not require entry authorizations. Neither will such authorizations be required of children up to age 18 and men over age 40. Students enrolled in institutions of higher learning in Egypt will also not need to attain special entry authorizations in order to cross the border at Rafah. Neither will people using Egypt as an intermediary stop, en route to other countries, provided that they have passports and Palestinian identity cards.

Before the uprising this year, the Egyptian government refused to open Rafah for the long term. The Egyptians demanded that security forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas be deployed at the crossing point, in lieu of Hamas security personnel. This became a bone of contention between Gaza's Hamas regime and Egypt's government, under Hosni Mubarak. Some of his critics in Egypt accused Mubarak of collaborating with Israel and the U.S. in their attempts to crack down on Hamas.

Egypt's Foreign Minister, Nabil Elaraby addressed the issue of Rafah last week at a press conference held in Cairo. He said that the opening of the crossing point was a humanitarian step and that its prolonged closure constituted an infringement of human rights.