Rafah Crossing Briefly Reopened for Humanitarian Reasons

For two days, Palestinians who work, study or need medical treatment will be able to go to Egypt.

Palestinian authorities temporarily opened the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border on Friday two weeks after it was sealed by withdrawing Israeli troops, officials and witnesses said.

A spokeswoman for Israel's Defense Ministry said: "Israel agreed to the request by the Palestinians and Egypt to open Rafah for two days for humanitarian reasons."

By agreement with Cairo, the Rafah terminal will be open for a 48-hour period to Palestinians who work, study or need medical treatment in Egypt or further abroad, the Palestinian Interior Ministry said. The move came a few days after Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas promised Gazans they would be able to enter Egypt without being stopped and examined by Israelis.

All travelers will need a valid Palestinian identity card or foreign passport, the PA ministry said, to prevent a repeat of a chaotic deluge of Gazans into Egypt that went on for days after Israel's September 12 withdrawal from Gaza following 38 years of military rule.

The ministry said the terminal would be closed again from Sunday until an internationally mediated accord was reached with Israel on how to manage Gaza-Egypt travel.

Israel said just before the pullout that it had shut the Rafah crossing for six months pending renovations and resolution of a dispute with the Palestinian Authority over how to secure it against arms smuggling to Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Militants sworn to Israel's destruction exploited the breakdown of order at the border to smuggle weapons into Gaza before Palestinian and Egyptian security forces plugged gaping holes in frontier fences earlier this week.

Until the implementation of the Oslo Accords in 1994, Gaza's residents could go abroad via the Allenby Bridge and Ben-Gurion Airport, after passing through the Erez checkpoint in the northern Gaza Strip. In the 1990s, Israel gradually cut the Strip off from the West Bank, prohibiting Gazans from leaving via the Allenby Bridge. At the same time, Palestinians were almost completely forbidden from leaving via Ben-Gurion Airport. Rafah remained Gaza's only connection with the outside world.

In 1999, more than half a million people passed through the crossing. During the past five years, Israel's restrictions on Palestinians' movement and its closure of the terminal for weeks on end reduced the number of people passing through to about 133,000 in 2004. This explains the Palestinians' feeling of suffocation, since most of them also were not allowed to leave via Erez.

It is no wonder, therefore, that Abbas' announcement on Wednesday that the Rafah checkpoint would open for students and those seeking medical treatment aroused much excitement. However, by Thursday night it was not clear whether he would keep his promise. Meanwhile, thousands of people planning to go overseas were thwarted by the disengagement. The main victims are students studying abroad and patients with scheduled operations.

Last weekend, Israel allowed about 50 students to leave in two buses through the Erez checkpoint and the Allenby Bridge. In addition to those waiting to leave, many hundreds of Palestinians who were overseas are stuck in Egypt, unable to come home. They did not imagine that Israel would close down the Rafah checkpoint before the Strip's evacuation.

Long months of talks between the Israelis, Palestinians and Quartet representative James Wolfensohn did not produce an agreement on operating the Rafah crossing. Israel rejected the proposal to have Europeans supervise the security arrangements.