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Palestinians assume control of crossing
Updated: 2005-11-26 09:37

Palestinians took control of a border for the first time Friday with the festive opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, a milestone on their rocky path to independence and a rare moment of joy for fenced-in Gazans.

The inauguration of the crossing, attended by scores of local and international dignitaries, was hailed as the beginning of a new era for Palestinians and especially the people of the Gaza Strip, badly demoralized after five years of bloody fighting with Israel.

"From this moment, we feel that we are free," said Fathia Najar, 55, one of a group of Palestinian travelers waiting to cross the border when the terminal starts operations Saturday. "Before this, we lived in a jail."

The opening of the border — under an agreement with Israel — bolstered Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' message that independence can only be won through negotiations and gave him a boost ahead of Jan. 25 parliamentary polls fiercely contested by the Islamic Hamas group.

Officials were almost giddy with optimism as they addressed 1,200 guests at the ceremony in a large tent outside the terminal.

"This is a great day. It is a day of happiness ... because it means an enormous step forward toward the freedom of the Palestinian people," said Marc Otte, the European Union's representative in the Middle East.

Abbas said he hoped the Palestinians' new gate to the world will spur investment but added that no economic recovery can take place without an end to rampant lawlessness in the Palestinian territories. "The magic key that can give us everything is the key of security," he said.

After the speeches, Abbas took a short tour of the crossing with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. As he approached the immigration desk, Abbas pulled out his red diplomatic passport and told the clerk: "Check it out."

"You have to?" Suleiman asked.

"You never know. I might be wanted," Abbas replied.

Israel shut the Rafah crossing before pulling out of Gaza in September, ending 38 years of occupation.

International officials made reopening Rafah under Palestinian control a top priority to give Gazans concrete proof that their lives were improving after the withdrawal. Israel had been reluctant to let the Palestinians run the crossing, fearing that militants and weapons would be able to cross.

Israel gave in and agreed last week — after months of international mediation and a final push by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — to hand the Palestinians control of the border under the gaze of European monitors.

In preparation for the opening, Palestinian workers renovated the terminal, painting walls, replacing ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights and installing blocks of computers. Rows of blue and orange chairs filled the hall. New metal detectors and X-ray belts stood nearby.

A new banner over the entrance read: "Rafah crossing: the gateway to freedom."

Otte, the EU representative, said operation of the terminal would be a test for renewed Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.

The crossing was not expected to have an immediate impact on Gaza's economy. Eventually, though, Gazans will be able to export major cargo through Rafah, providing an alternative to the Karni cargo crossing into Israel, said Nigel Roberts, the World Bank's regional director.

Palestinians will only be allowed to import goods from Egypt through a terminal being built at the junction of Israel, Egypt and Gaza that will be partially controlled by Israel. Israel also retains control of Gaza's coast and its airspace.

The Rafah crossing, which opens to traffic Saturday, initially will operate only four hours a day until all 70 European monitors can arrive and get settled. Eventually, it will be open 24 hours a day, Palestinian officials said.

While some Palestinians said they were disappointed at the truncated hours, European and local officials said it was more important to get the border open quickly than to wait until they were prepared to run it full-time.

Dozens of Palestinians gathered outside the terminal Friday, sitting in green plastic chairs under the shade of a metal awning in hopes the passage might open a day early.

Najar, whose husband lives in Jordan, said that under Israel's control she would sometimes have to shuttle between her home in nearby Khan Younis and the congested terminal for 15 days before she was able to cross.

"We were depressed and disappointed. We were mentally and physically exhausted," she said.

Nazmi Muhanna, the Palestinian official in charge of the crossing, said that because of security concerns and short hours of operation, Israel processed fewer than 400 people a day — when the border was open. He hopes to process at least 1,500 people daily once the terminal gets up to speed, he said.

Under the agreement reached last week, Israel is to let more Palestinian cargo pass through Karni and bus convoys can travel between the West Bank and Gaza starting Dec. 15, linking the two territories for the first time in more than five years. The Palestinians also were given permission to begin building a Gaza seaport.

Palestinian and international officials, as well as many of the people waiting at the crossing, saw Rafah's opening as a sign of more far-reaching agreements to come on the path to statehood.

"It's a good start," said Aida Abu Nahel, 55, waiting to visit her daughters in Cairo. "You cannot go up the whole staircase in one leap. You have to go one step at a time."

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