Rafah Border Crossing, between Egypt and Gaza — Hundreds of Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip arrived here by the busload Saturday to pass through the reopened border into Egypt, taking the first tangible steps out of the Israeli occupation after years of deadlocked peace talks.
“I feel this is the start of freedom,” said Hasna el-Ryes, 45, a Gaza resident waiting to cross into Egypt so she could travel to visit sons studying in Britain. “You can’t imagine how much we have suffered.”
While a gradual loosening of the border controls over the last year had already allowed some Gaza residents to cross — registered students or those seeking medical treatment — many of those making the trip on Saturday said they felt a new stirring of hope at Egypt’s announcement that it was breaking the blockade imposed on Gaza five years ago when the militant group Hamas took over.
They cheered the decision as a humanitarian gesture to residents of Gaza but also as an important concession to make possible the reconciliation deal that Egypt brokered between Hamas and the moderate Palestinian faction Fatah. And they saluted the Egyptian revolution that brought about Egypt’s new spirit of independence.
“The people are taking their rights, and when the Egyptians rise it helps the Palestinians,” said Faris Awad, 48, returning to visit family in Cairo for the first time since the start of the blockade, just in time for a wedding.
Musbah Mohamed Halawin, 59, waiting in a wheelchair to travel to Cairo for the first time in 30 years, called the Egyptians “brothers.” “Egypt is the only thing we have after God,” he said.
Samah Ahmad, 30, did a little dance as she raced down a hall holding out her freshly stamped Palestinian passport. She said she had tried to cross twice in the last 10 days— rejected once by the Palestinian authorities and once by the Egyptians.
Now, she was planning to travel to Turkey for a meeting of activists to discuss ways to build on the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. “Now we are starting our own revolution, not to tear down the Palestinian government but to rebuild it,” she said. “We are still under occupation, and we need to be like one hand to overcome it.”
Many noted that Saturday’s opening was in a sense an extension of a gradual loosening, first by Israel last year in the aftermath of its forces’ killing of nine participants in a Turkish aid flotilla trying to enter Gaza. In the second half of last year, about 19,000 people a month crossed the Rafah border both ways, slightly less than half the rate before the blockade. After the revolution, Egypt began loosening its border restrictions as well. By the beginning of May, the crossing was already open several days a week, and patients needing medical treatment, registered students, and some others were allowed to cross.
And the formal, seven-days-a-week opening on Saturday did not remove all restrictions. It left in place a blockade on the shipment into Gaza of goods, including concrete badly needed to repair buildings damaged by clashes between Israel and Hamas. “This is good, but we are looking for Egypt to break the siege, to allow the shipment of cement and trade,” said Gamal el-Din, a Palestinian engineer entering Egypt.
There are still restrictions on passengers as well. Although women, children and older Palestinians can now enter Egypt without a visa, men 18 to 40 years old are required to obtain one, for security reasons.
Fala el-Helow, 35, had taken her 16-year-old son out of school before exams to bring him on the historic border crossing, to visit a sick brother studying in Cairo, after she had been turned away at the border just a week before. But she said she could still not bring her husband, 39.
After years caught between the conflicting and sometimes capricious bureaucracies of Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, she said she was tempering her expectations. “The Egyptians are moody,” she said, as an Egyptian customs officer standing on a stool behind a counter called out names and tossed stamped passports into a waiting crowd of Palestinians. “You never know what they will do.”
While the terminal holding Egyptians entering Gaza remained almost empty for most of the day, a steady stream of Gazans kept flowing the other way. Aish el-Meleit, a 55-year-old farmer, said he had come for a chance to visit an ailing aunt in Egypt; he had missed the death and funerals of both his parents because of the blockade.
By early afternoon, six buses, each carrying about 50 travelers, had dropped their passengers on the Palestinian side, the crossing’s police said. Only two travelers had been returned from the Egyptian side, compared with nearly 40 on a typical day last week.
Some arrived with inflated expectations. Abu Mohamed, 70, a Palestinian who has lived for the last 60 years in the Egyptian town of El Arish near the border, arrived before 9 a.m. hoping for the first chance in 30 years to see his family in Gaza. He had been unable to obtain a passport from the Palestinian Authority, which issues then in cooperation with Israel, and he hoped to enter on a letter he had obtained from Egyptian officials.
But after a few hours of rejection by the border guards, he stormed off, cursing. “After 60 years, how could they not let us in? Disgusting,” he said.
Still, Hosni Hamid, 63, who operates the snack bar inside the Palestinian waiting area, said that he believed the traffic had doubled or tripled from the usual day, and that business was booming. “Palestinians should visit Egypt; Egyptians should visit Palestinians. It is good for everyone,” he said. “Why not?”