First Palestinians Cross at Rafah Without Shin Bet Interrogation

The crossing was opened due to a Palestinian-Egyptian arrangement and Israel's quiet assent.

The first operation of the Rafah crossing without Israeli presence and supervision Friday would have been front-page news if not for the deadly Hamas parade in Jabalya, the Qassam rockets on Sderot and the Israeli response.

As Palestinian Authority Chair Mahmoud Abbas promised last week, the Rafah crossing was opened Friday by means of a special Palestinian-Egyptian arrangement and Israel's quiet assent. For the first time in 37 years, Palestinians crossed the border without scrutiny by the Israeli army, without paying a border tax to the Israeli treasury and without a Shin Bet interrogation.

The crossing opened Friday morning at 8 A.M. and closed Saturday morning. According to a Palestinian source, following the escalation of violence, Israel demanded the Egyptians close the border earlier than planned. Before the escalation, the source told Haaretz, "Israel showed flexibility because it understood the Palestinians had to let off steam and that Gaza shouldn't be turned into a big prison."

Official figures were not available, but it is believed about 4,000 people crossed from each direction; some say far less. The Egyptians and the Palestinians made sure those crossing had Palestinian identity cards. Among those leaving were students studying abroad and patients undergoing treatment abroad, as well as those working overseas, especially in the Persian Gulf, who might have lost their visas if they had not gone back on time.

The Palestinians entering Gaza were those who had left before disengagement, as well as those who left through breaches in the wall on the Philadelphi route in the days following the evacuation of El-Arish, and were unable to return the same way.

Unofficial Palestinian sources said they believed that among those entering were also wanted men of Fatah, especially from the first intifada.

Hundreds of people gathered at the Rafah crossing Friday, hoping to get across, but were sent back because they did not meet the criteria of the Palestinian authorities. They were told the crossing would be open for two days, and not for everyone.

Last-minute negotiations staved off a threat by the Egyptians not to open the border Friday, according to unofficial Palestinian sources, after a wanted man from the first intifada was escorted across the border from Egypt to Gaza by his family and armed friends.