Dozens packed the bus as hundreds of other passengers waited at the Rafah border crossing on Saturday, which opened for business a day after a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony with Palestinian Auhtority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“Today is a day of happiness for every Palestinian, the suffering is coming to an end,” an ecstatic Ali Qahman, 60, told Reuters just before the first bus pulled up to the crossing where Palestinian police waited to process them.
About 20 European monitors supervised the cross-border movement, free of onsite Israeli control for the first time since Israel withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip in September, ending 38 years of military occupation.
Under a deal negotiated by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli officials have been granted permission to install close-circuit cameras and were to watch the crossing via videolink to a nearby monitoring station in southern Israel.
Queues of excited Palestinians had been lining up since the early morning to await the opening of the crossing, which allows them to leave Gaza without running the gauntlet of Israeli security checks.
“Today is a day of happiness for every Palestinian, the suffering is coming to an end”
Under EU supervision, the transit route opens up the world to the Gaza Strip’s 1.3 million largely impoverished residents, after fears the territory would be transformed into a “giant prison” after the end of Israel‘s 38-year occupation.
“It is a dream come true for us to be here to celebrate the reopening of the Rafah terminal as a free crossing between us and our brothers in Egypt,” Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said at an official opening on Friday.
Boost for economy
Palestinian officials hope a fully functioning border will help revive a desperately depressed economy overly dependent on Israel, and help bring down unemployment that has soared to more than 40%.
The Rafah terminal is opening for the first time without direct Israeli control since a border crossing was established after Israel signed a peace deal with Egypt in 1979.
The crossing will initially operate for four hours a day. It will run under Palestinian and Egyptian management and supervised by 70 European Union observers.
Israel finally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in mid-September but since then has kept the gates shut to the territory, which has no seaport and a mothballed international airport that was bombarded by Israeli war planes four years ago.
Israel had long refused to re-open the border, citing security concerns while efforts to negotiate an agreement with Israel for a reopening ran aground until the personal intervention of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who managed to secure a deal during a visit to the region on 15 November.
EU monitors assisted as the first
UN chief Kofi Annan welcomed the border opening. “The secretary general hopes that the same spirit of cooperation will be brought to the implementation of the other access and movement issues agreed upon as part of the disengagement process,” Annan’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.
EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, also hailed it as an important step towards a Palestinian state.
“The opening of Rafah is a great opportunity, it is a turning point,” he said in a statement. “For the first time, Palestinians assume the responsibility to manage external borders. It is an important step towards eventual statehood.”