RAFAH TERMINAL, Gaza Strip (AP) – Joyous Palestinians crossed from Gaza to Egypt through a Palestinian-run border terminal Saturday, marking the first time in nearly four decades that Palestinians do not have to submit to Israeli security checks to leave the fenced-in coastal strip.
Under the supervision of European monitors, Palestinian border officials swiftly checked passports. "It”s the beginning of a new era that will open a new horizon for me," said Jihad Zanoun, 30, a government employee and the first traveler to cross.
The new arrangements at Rafah are part of a U.S.-brokered agreement between the Palestinians and Israel which controlled the border until its pullout from Gaza in September.
The opening of the border marks the first time Palestinians take control of a border, without Israeli veto powers, and was celebrated by Palestinians as a step toward independence. It also gave a boost to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is fighting off a strong challenge by the Islamic militant Hamas in Jan. 25 parliament elections.
Initially, the crossing it to be open for four hours a day, and Palestinian officials say they expect to processabout 600 passengers each day. Once all 70 European monitors are in place, up from 20 now, the crossing will operate around the clock, officials said.
On Saturday morning, hundreds of Palestinians crowded the refurbished Rafah terminal, eager to be among the first to cross, following a festive inauguration Friday.
Priority was given to those requiring medical treatment and to university students.
Naimeh Bayah, 52, who was in a wheelchair, said she was traveling to Egypt for leg surgery. Like other travelers, she said crossing Israeli-controlled Rafah had been difficult, with long waits.
"I am so tired, but happy, because I made the crossing as a human being for the first time," she said. "I had traveled before and I had to wait hours before getting in. People here, including the foreigners, were so kind."
Israel had imposed tight security controls at the terminal to prevent militants and weapons from being smuggled in and out of Gaza.
Nazmi Muhanna, the Palestinian official in charge of the crossing, said that because of security concerns and short hours of operation, Israel processed fewer than 400 people a day, when the border was open. He hopes to process at least 1,500 people daily once the terminal gets up to speed, he said.
While some Palestinians said they were disappointed at the truncated hours, European and local officials said it was more important to get the border open quickly than to wait until they were prepared to run it full-time.
On Friday, officials were almost giddy with optimism as they addressed 1,200 guests at the ceremony in a large tent outside the terminal.
"This is a great day. It is a day of happiness … because it means an enormous step forward toward the freedom of the Palestinian people," said Marc Otte, the European Union”s representative in the Middle East.
Abbas said he hoped the Palestinians” new gate to the world will spur investment but added that no economic recovery can take place without an end to rampant lawlessness in the Palestinian territories. "The magic key that can give us everything is the key of security," he said.
Israel shut the Rafah crossing before pulling out of Gaza in September, ending 38 years of occupation. International officials made reopening Rafah under Palestinian control a top priority to give Gazans concrete proof that their lives were improving after the withdrawal.
Israel had been reluctant to let the Palestinians run the crossing, fearing that militants and weapons would be able to cross.
Israel gave in and agreed last week, after months of international mediation and a final push by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to hand the Palestinians control of the border under the gaze of European monitors.
In preparation for the opening, Palestinian workers renovated the terminal, painting walls, replacing ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights and installing blocks of computers. Rows of blue and orange chairs filled the hall.
New metal detectors and X-ray belts stood nearby. A new banner over the entrance read: "Rafah crossing: the gateway to freedom."
The crossing was not expected to have an immediate impact on Gaza”s economy. Eventually, though, Gazans will be able to export major cargo through Rafah, providing an alternative to the Karni cargo crossing into Israel, said Nigel Roberts, the World Bank”s regional director.
Palestinians will only be allowed to import goods from Egypt through a terminal being built at the junction of Israel, Egypt and Gaza that will be partially controlled by Israel. Israel also retains control of Gaza”s coast and its airspace.
Under the agreement reached last week, Israel is to let more Palestinian cargo pass through Karni and bus convoys can travel between the West Bank and Gaza starting Dec. 15, linking the two territories for the first time in more than five years. The Palestinians also were given permission to begin building a Gaza seaport.