Egypt has reopened its Rafah border with the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, allowing people to cross freely for the first time in four years following the downfall of ex-President Hosni Mubarak. About 400 Palestinians gathered at the border on Saturday in eager anticipation of the move to head southward. Among the first to cross the reopened border post were two ambulances ferrying patients from Gaza for treatment in Egypt as well as a minibus carrying a dozen visitors. Cairo says the Rafah crossing will be open from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. local time every day except Fridays and holidays. Jubilant Palestinians also expect Cairo to allow the importation of services and goods including construction materials into the impoverished coastal sliver.
Women, children as well as men aged over 40 will be allowed to enter Egypt freely, but men aged between 18 and 40 will still require a permit. Gaza Strip’s sole gateway to the outside world will remain closed for trade. However, the opening of the border crossing is expected to provide a major boost to the enclave’s economy. The former Egyptian regime was under pressure from the public and some Arab countries for refusing to open the crossing even during the Israeli deadly offensive into Gaza in 2008, in which nearly 1,400 people lost their lives, mostly women and children. The 22-day Israeli offensive deteriorated the already dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza as many civilian infrastructures were knocked out during the invasion. Gazans have ever since been facing harsh conditions with minimal supply of food, water, fuel, and electricity.
Egypt kept the crossing largely closed after Israel in 2007 when Israel imposed a siege on Gaza after Hamas took over the territory after a power struggle with Fatah, the party of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. Israel launched a war on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009. The siege has left nearly one and a half million Palestinians in dire need of basic supplies. Enforcing the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, the regime of the ousted, US-backed ruler of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, had refused to open the Rafah crossing since June 2007. The reopening of Rafah is likely to rattle the Israeli regime, which earlier said it was “worried” by Egypt’s plans to reopen the crossing. The UN has called the siege illegal and repeatedly demanded that it be lifted. The new Egyptian government has been keen to review its policy on Gaza since Mubarak was overthrown in February.