CAIRO – Egypt will open the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip permanently on Saturday, May 28, in a move that will significantly ease the years-long Israeli blockade on the impoverished Palestinian territory.
“Egyptian authorities have decided to extend the working hours at the Rafah border crossing starting from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a daily basis, except for Fridays and official holidays, starting on Saturday, May 28,” the state MENA news agency said.
The decision came as “part of Egyptian efforts to end divisions among Palestinians and to finalize their reconciliation”, the agency said.
Egyptian authorities have also decided to allow all Palestinian men over the age of 40 and those under the age of 18 to travel to Egypt from anywhere in the world without a visa.
Women of all ages will be exempt from visas. Students of all ages with letters of acceptance from Egyptian universities will also be allowed to enter Egypt without any restrictions.
The move suggested a further policy shift in Egypt since the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak, whose government faced domestic accusations of collaborating with Israel in enforcing the blockade on Gaza, according to Reuters.
Under Mubarak, Egypt only sporadically opened up the Rafah border crossing for food and medicine, or to let through people, mainly those seeking medical treatment or travelling to study from the area which is home to about 1.5 million Palestinians.
Egypt brokered a reconciliation deal earlier this month between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and its Hamas rivals that ended a four-year rift.
Under the deal, a government of technocrats will be formed to prepare for elections within a year.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Menha Bakhoum said Egypt had not consulted any foreign country over the decision, which she said was made before the reconciliation accord was reached.
“This is a sovereign Egyptian decision in the first place,” she told Al-Jazeera by telephone.
Asked if European observers, who were based at the Palestinian side of the crossing before it was closed in 2007 when Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from Abbas’s Fatah group, would return, she said: “We don’t know.”
She said the Egyptian decision was intended to “ease the suffering of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip”.
The Egyptian decision won plaudits from Hamas, which described it as “an important move for the entry and exit of Palestinian citizens”.
“We hope it will be developed to enable the Rafah crossing to handle goods in the future,” Hamas spokesman Taher Al-Nono told Al-Jazeera television.
A separate statement by the Islamic group hailed the move and said it “reflects the spirit of revolution in Egypt and the depth of brotherhood between the Palestinian people and the Egyptian people.”
Egypt “has returned itself to its original role in the Palestinian matter,” said the statement cited by The Jerusalem Post.
“This decision reflects the spirit of revolution in Egypt and the depth of brotherhood between the Palestinian people and the Egyptian people, which has returned itself to its original role in the Palestinian matter.”
But the Egyptian decision drew angry reaction from Israel.
Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said Egypt’s decision “symbolizes the first stage of a very problematic system for Israel.”
Yet, Vilnai emphasized that the new regime in Egypt did not breach its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
(www.onislam.net / 28.05.2011)