It was a smooth debut Saturday for the first Palestinian-run border. Hundreds of travelers zipped through passport control without having to submit to Israeli security checks, savoring their new freedom after 38 years of military occupation.
The West Bank also witnessed a milestone: corruption-tainted veterans of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah movement were swept aside by younger activists in Fatah’s first primary, signaling a change of generations and the rise of jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti.
The opening of Gaza’s gate to the world and the revamping of the movement that was founded by Yasser Arafat could boost Abbas’ chances of beating back a challenge by the Islamic militant Hamas in Jan. 25 parliament elections.
At noon Saturday, the Rafah terminal on the Gaza-Egypt border opened for the first time since Israel’s pullout from the coastal strip in the summer. Under a U.S.-brokered deal, the Palestinians are in charge, with backup from European monitors. Israel watches over closed-circuit TV, but cannot veto travelers.
Jihad Zanoun, 30, a government employee, was the first to cross. “It is the beginning of a new era that will open a new horizon for me,” said Zanoun, who was visiting relatives in Egypt.
The border was open for just four hours Saturday — a day after Palestinians took control with an inauguration ceremony — to give European monitors more time to settle in, but it will eventually operate around the clock.
European officials said 1,587 people crossed on the first day.
“We are extremely happy,” said Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana. “It has gone very smoothly.”
For fenced-in Gazans, the opening of the border between Gaza and Egypt marked the most dramatic improvement in their lives since Israel withdrew from the coastal strip in September.
Before the pullout, Israelis security checks at Rafah — meant to stop militants and weapons smuggling — often caused delays of hours or days. During the last five years of fighting, Israel also imposed travel restrictions on Gazans between the ages of 18-45, and most couldn’t leave.
Starting in mid-December, Palestinians also will be able to travel between the West Bank and Gaza for the first time in five years, at first in Israeli-escorted bus convoys. Construction is to begin on a Gaza seaport, and the United States has urged Israel to reach quick agreement with the Palestinians on reopening Gaza’s international airport.
More support for Abbas?
These changes could translate into growing support for Abbas ahead of the parliament election. Hamas has belittled Abbas’ nonviolent approach as ineffective and has boasted it drove Israel out of Gaza by force.
A new Fatah slate for parliament also could help keep Hamas at bay. In local elections in the past year, the Islamic militants had waged a successful clean-government campaign, and many Palestinian voters say they back Hamas because of exasperation over Fatah corruption, not because they support the group’s violent ideology.
Fatah’s “young guard,” led by Barghouti, swept primaries for the parliament list held in parts of the West Bank, preliminary results indicated Saturday.
In Ramallah, Barghouti won 34,000 out of 40,000 votes, affirming his status as the most popular Fatah politician and possible Abbas successor. Barghouti, 46, is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for his involvement in shooting attacks that killed five Israelis.
The younger activists had long pushed for a greater say, especially after last year’s death of Arafat, who founded Fatah and controlled it for four decades.
Abbas agreed to hold internal elections for the list of parliament candidates and, under pressure from the young guard, blocked demands by Fatah old-timers to be assigned secure spots on the slate.
“The old guard has failed politically and administratively, and in running their organization in a democratic way,” said Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri. “It’s time to go home.”
Israel: No Barghouti release
Israel, meanwhile, said it would not release Barghouti, who supports peace negotiations but also justifies the use of deadly force to drive Israel out of the West Bank. “Marwan Barghouti has blood on his hands,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. “Marwan Barghouti will sit in jail until the end of his days.”
Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, said her husband’s strong showing is a message to Israel that “Marwan is not a terrorist, he is a leader of his people and his people will not abandon him.”
On Friday, primaries were held in five of the largest West Bank districts — Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, Jenin and Tubas. In coming days, primaries were expected in several more districts in the West Bank and Gaza.
The new parliament will have 132 seats, up from 88 in the current legislature.
Some 463,000 Palestinians registered for the Fatah primary. In all, 463 candidates competed in the West Bank and 311 in Gaza to get on the Fatah parliament list.
Abbas will put together the final list from a pool of the top vote-getters. However, he’ll consider twice as many people as districts have seats, allowing him to choose from a larger group and giving him considerable say.