RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Egypt lifted a 4-year-old blockade of the Gaza Strip on Saturday, greatly easing travel restrictions on the 1.5 million residents of the Palestinian territory in a move that bolstered the Hamas government while dealing a setback to Israel's attempts to isolate the militant group.
The sense of relief was palpable as buses piled high with luggage crossed the Rafah border terminal and hundreds of people traveled abroad for overdue medical appointments, business dealings and family affairs. In Israel, fears were heightened that militants and weapons will soon pour into the territory.
"I was so happy to hear that the Egyptian border is opening so I can finally travel for treatment," said Mohammad Zoarob, a 66-year-old suffering from chronic kidney disease.
He said he had been waiting for a medical permit from the Palestinian health ministry for five years so he could go to Egypt for treatment. When Palestinian officials coincidentally approved the permit on Saturday, he kissed his family goodbye, rushed to the border and was quickly whisked across.
"They put me in an ambulance and in five minutes I reached the Egyptian side of the crossing," he said.
Saturday's expansion of the Rafah crossing was a tangible benefit of the popular unrest sweeping through the Arab world. The blockade, which has fueled an economic crisis in Gaza, is deeply unpopular among Arabs, and Egypt's caretaker leaders had promised to end it since the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after the Islamic militant Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007. The closure aimed to weaken Hamas. But the Iranian-backed group remains firmly in power, operating the border crossing even at a time when it is supposed to be reconciling with the rival Fatah movement.
Until Saturday, the Rafah border terminal had functioned at a limited capacity. Only certain classes of people, such as students, businessmen or medical patients, were eligible to travel and the crossing was often subject to closures, leading to huge backlogs that forced people to wait for months.
Under the new system, virtually anyone can travel, and a much larger number of Palestinians are expected to be able to cross each day.
Hundreds of Gazans gathered early Saturday as the first bus load of passengers crossed the border at 9 a.m. Two Egyptian officers stood guard next to a large Egyptian flag atop the border gate as the vehicle rumbled through. One after another buses crossed Rafah, pulling blue carts behind them with luggage piled high.
"All we need is to travel like humans, be treated with dignity and feel like any other citizens of the world who can travel in and out freely," said Rami Arafat, 52, who hoped to catch a flight out of Cairo on Sunday to attend his daughter's wedding in Algeria.
Nearby, 28-year-old Khaled Halaweh said he was headed to Egypt to study for a master's degree in engineering at Alexandria University.
"The closure did not affect only the travel of passengers or the flowing of goods. Our brains and our thoughts were under blockade," said Halaweh, who said he hadn't been out of Gaza for seven years.
Inside the border terminal Saturday, the atmosphere was orderly, as Hamas police called passengers one by one to register their travel documents.
By the close of operation at 5 p.m., 410 people had crossed into Egypt, said Salama Baraka, head of police at the Rafah terminal, well above the daily average of about 300 in recent months.
Thirty-nine were turned back because they did not have the proper visas or travel documents, Baraka said. Israeli media quoted Egyptian officials as saying some were also on Egyptian "terror lists." In the past, Egypt had rejected passengers found to be on "blacklists." An additional 150 people crossed from Egypt into Gaza.
With the crossing now operating six days a week, officials hope to raise the daily number of travelers to 1,000. Baraka said ten thousand people are registered to travel between June and August 25.
"Today is a cornerstone for a new era that we hope will pave the road to ending the siege and blockade on Gaza," said Hatem Awideh, director general of the Hamas border authority in Gaza. "We hope this facilitation by our Egyptian brothers will improve travel and will allow everyone to leave Gaza."
About 100 Hamas supporters marched with Palestinian and Egyptian flags outside the border terminal in a gesture of gratitude to Egypt.
"This courageous step by Egypt reflects the deep historic relations between the Palestinian and Egyptian nations," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zahri.
The new system will not resolve Gazans' travel woes completely, though.
Men between the ages of 18 and 40 still will have to obtain Egyptian visas, a process that can take months. Women, children and older men must get travel permits, which can be obtained in several days.
Israel, which controls Gaza's cargo crossings, allows most consumer goods into Gaza, but still restricts exports as well as the entry of much-needed construction materials, saying they could be used by militants. Israel also enforces a naval blockade aimed at weapons smuggling.
Israeli and American officials have expressed concerns that Hamas will exploit the opening to bring weapons and fighters into Gaza. In January 2008, masked militants blew open the Rafah border wall, allowing thousands of people to pour in and out of Egypt.
Egyptian officials say they have security measures in place to keep weapons from crossing through Rafah.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said the Rafah opening puts "additional responsibility on the Egyptians about what happens in Gaza."
"Both Israel and Egypt have mutual interests against global Jihad terror and against Hamas terror and I expect that cooperation will continue for the benefit of both sides," Ayalon said on Channel 10 TV.
Opposition lawmaker Nachman Shai blamed the Israeli government for failing to prevent the opening of Rafah. Israeli officials had lobbied Egypt to leave the restrictions in place.
"Mubarak is gone, there is a new government and we already see how Israel-Egypt relations are substantially deteriorating," he said. "A significant security breach was created today under our noses.
Hamas has long used tunnels to get arms into Gaza. Gaza militants now have military-grade rockets that have hit cities in southern Israel. Israeli military officials believe that Iranian experts are already in Gaza training Hamas. The fear is that it will now become even easier for them to get into the territory.
"One trainer who tells them how to set up the rockets and how to use them is equal to a large quantity of weapons," Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official who works closely with Egypt, told Channel 2 TV.
The border opening comes on the heels of an Egyptian-mediated unity deal between the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah.
Hamas has governed Gaza since routing Fatah forces in 2007, leaving the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in control only of the West Bank.
Earlier this month, the sides signed a reconciliation deal in Cairo. But details are still being worked out, and Hamas will be in charge of the Palestinian side of Rafah.
Both Egypt and Fatah officials played down any significance, describing the expanded operations of Rafah a victory for all Palestinians. Nabil Shaath, a senior Fatah official, said he considered the border opening a fruit of the unity deal.