The Palestinian Authority assumed full control of the border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on Wednesday morning in a handover that is considerd to be the first real test of the reconciliation agreement signed a few weeks ago in Cairo between the PA and Hamas.
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The PA said in a statement that the Palestinian government in Ramallah, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is now responsible for the border crossings. The next stage will be for Hamas to grant the PA full control of all the government ministries in Gaza, and at a later stage, the security forces will be unified.
The PA Minister of Civil Affairs, Hussein Sheikh, said that the Rafah crossing will return to full operations, as it did before 2007, beginning on November 15. By then, Sheikh said, all the arrangements will be in place to open the crossing, including the presence of officials and members of the Presidential Guard.
The West Bank-based Bank of Palestine will assume responsibility for collecting payments made at the crossings and the PA's Finance Ministry will be responsible for the collection of tax payments. This is considered to be a significant step that proves Hamas' willingness to implement the unity agreement.
Officials in Gaza said that Hamas will still be in charge of security at the crossings because the PA had not yet made arrangements to deploy its forces there. It cannot be ruled out that Hamas police officers will be part of the forces stationed at the crossings in future.
The opening of the Rafah border crossing is a very significant and symbolic move in the return of the PA to the Gaza Strip. Rafah has largely been kept closed by Egypt since 2007, when Hamas seized control of Gaza from the PA in a bloody coup. The crossing is usually opened only a few times a year, generally for humanitarian reasons. Egypt had in the past consistently maintained that the crossing would remain closed until forces loyal to the PA were present.
As of Monday night, the PA still had doubts as to whether the handover would be implemented. Things looked more encouraging later in the night when Nazmi Muhanna, director of the Palestinian Borders and Crossings Authority, arrived in Gaza, as did an Egyptian delegation meant to oversee the handover.
There are two crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip, however at present neither is manned by the Hamas administration. At these crossings, Erez and Kerem Shalom, there are simply two Hamas-run checkpoints a few hundred meters from the crossing, where it would conduct security checks and collect appropriate tax payments on good entering the Strip. So far, these checkpoints have not been dismantled, but it is believed this matter will be dealt with in the coming days.
All the factions involved in the reconciliation agreement are to meet on November 21 in Cairo to continue discussing implementation of the agreement, including the establishment of a national unity government or a government agreed on by both sides that will move ahead on elections in the West Bank and Gaza.