Image: Palestinians wait to cross into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip
Said Khatib  /  AFP - Getty Images
Palestinians wait to cross into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday, May 28, 2011 as Egypt reopened the border, allowing people to cross freely for the first time in four years.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/28/2011 6:27:14 AM ET 2011-05-28T10:27:14

After four years, Egypt on Saturday permanently opened the Gaza Strip's main gateway to the outside world, bringing long-awaited relief to the territory's Palestinian population and a significant achievement for the area's ruling Hamas militant group.

The reopening of the Rafah border crossing eases an Egyptian blockade of Gaza that has prevented the vast majority of the densely populated area's 1.5 million people from being able to travel abroad.

The closure, along with an Israeli blockade of its borders with Gaza, has fueled an economic crisis in the territory.

But Saturday's move also raises Israeli fears that militants will be able to move freely in and out of Gaza.

Highlighting those fears, the Israeli army said militants from inside Gaza fired a mortar shell into southern Israel overnight. There were no injuries, and Israel did not respond.

"I believe this a unique move and positive development," said Ghazi Hamad, Hamas's deputy foreign minister.

"We will cooperate with Egyptian brothers to make sure the new arrangements get implemented smoothly and accurately," he added. "We even hope that 1,000 people will be able to cross every day."

'Dangerous'
Egypt's envoy to the Palestinian territories, Yasser Othman, said Saturday that Egypt "would not let anyone interfere" with the opening of the border, The Jerusalem Post reported, citing Army Radio.

Othman dismissed Israeli concerns about weapons smuggling, saying the decision was "an internal Egyptian issue," the Post said.

It reported that Palestinian men aged 18 to 40 would need visas but other people would not.

The Post quoted an unnamed officer from Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories as saying the move could see more weapons and fighters arrived from Egypt.

"There are already vast quantities of weaponry being smuggled into the Gaza Strip via the tunnels under the border with Egypt," the officer told the paper. "If the border is opened, we can assume that still larger amounts will be brought in."

Speaking before the crossing opened, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom said re-opening of the border was "dangerous," and said the international community should take steps to prevent it, the Post reported.

Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007.

The closure, which also included tight Israeli restrictions at its cargo crossings with Gaza and a naval blockade, was meant to weaken Hamas, an Islamic militant group that opposes peace with Israel.

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But since the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February, Egypt's new leadership has vowed to ease the blockade and improve relations with the Palestinians.

The Rafah border terminal has functioned at limited capacity for months.

Travel has been restricted to certain classes of people, such as students, businessmen or medical patients. And the crossing was often subject to closures. Travel through Israel's passenger crossing with Gaza is extremely rare.

Under the new system, most restrictions are being lifted, and a much larger number of Palestinians are expected to be able to cross each day, easing a backlog that can force people to wait for months.

Some 400 people had gathered at Rafah early Saturday as the first bus load of passengers crossed the border.

Two Egyptian officers stood guard next to a large Egyptian flag atop the border gate as the vehicle passed through.

Among the first passengers to cross was Ward Labaa, a 27-year-old woman who was leaving Gaza for the first time in her life to seek medical care for a stomach ailment at a Cairo hospital.

More buses crossed Rafah later, dragging blue carts attached to the rear, with luggage piled high.

Salama Baraka, the chief Palestinian officer at the Gaza side of the Rafah terminal, said travel has been limited to about 300 passengers a day.

He said it was unclear how many people would pass through on Saturday, but that officials hoped to get about three days' worth of people, or roughly 900, across.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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