Egypt Opens Window in Gaza's Dark Room

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The Age (Australia)

Egypt Opens Window in Gaza's Dark Room

Jason Koutsoukis in the Gaza Strip

About 300 Palestinians crossed into Egypt from the Gaza Strip soon after the border crossing was opened last night. (AFP/File/Said Khatib)

Almost four years to the day since then president Hosni Mubarak closed the gate between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, Egypt's interim ruling council yesterday delivered on its promise to reopen the border.

On the Palestinian side of the crossing, would-be travellers started assembling at the departure terminal after morning prayers at 4.30am.

''This is the first time in five years that I will have left Gaza,'' said Nabil Basser, 47, who owns a dressmaking business in Rafah.

''It will be for me like opening a window in a room that has been dark for five years.

''I'm looking forward to seeing some different streets, different routines, different faces.''

For 27-year-old Warda al-Larda, the trip to Egypt will be her first journey outside the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea that is home to an estimated 1.5 million people.

''My reason is medical,'' Ms Larda said.

''Six years ago I had one kidney removed, and now I need some special treatment, so I am going to the Nasser Institute in Cairo for an appointment.''

The Egyptian and Israeli border crossings to Gaza have been open only to a privileged few, or people seeking urgent medical treatment, since the militant Palestinian movement Hamas seized control of the Strip in May 2007.

Now Egyptian authorities have promised that the border will be open on a permanent basis.

All women, children and men aged over 40 will be able to travel without restriction, but men aged 18 to 40 will be required to obtain a visa.

''I'm going to party,'' said 24-year-old mechanic Ahmed Najjar, displaying his frustration with the tight restrictions imposed by Hamas that forbids alcohol.

''Discotheques, bars, and being able to talk to women freely, this is what I will be doing for the next three days.''

About 300 Palestinians crossed into Egypt from the Gaza Strip soon after the border crossing was opened last night.

Israeli officials said they were worried about weapons and militants flowing into the Hamas-controlled strip and about what the move indicated for Egypt's future policies.

But the government did not issue a statement, saying it was in contact with the Egyptian authorities and wanted to see how the change played out in practice before reacting. Others did not wait.

''This is a dangerous development that could lead to the smuggling of weapons, explosives and al-Qaeda agents into Gaza,'' Silvan Shalom, deputy prime minister from the right-wing Likud Party, said.

But some Israeli officials said the fear was overstated, and that the border opening might provide some benefit: it could ease international pressure on Israel over its treatment of Gaza, while increasing Egypt's responsibility for the enclave's residents.

Militants and weapons, they added, were imported by Hamas through underground tunnels, not through legal crossings, and the border was being opened only to people, not goods.

''Some think this is a good thing,'' one official said.

''Egypt says it will keep an eye on arms smuggling and it will end up taking more responsibility for Gaza. One question is what they will do about cash brought in suitcases.''

Egypt is also planning to exchange ambassadors with Iran, another source of Israeli worry that a post-Mubarak Egypt will be far less amenable to its interests.

What is causing concern in Israel is, in fact, as much what the opening portends about Egypt's new direction - and what next steps it might take towards Gaza - as the act itself.

With Agencies

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