RAFAH TERMINAL, Gaza Strip – Joyous Palestinians crossed from Gaza to Egypt through a Palestinian-run border terminal Saturday, the first time in nearly four decades they didn't have to submit to Israeli security checks to leave the fenced-in coastal strip.
Hundreds of Palestinians crowded the Rafah terminal, a day after Palestinians took control of the crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Jihad Zanoun, 30, a government employee, was the first to cross.
"It is the beginning of a new era that will open a new horizon for me," said Zanoun, who was heading to Egypt to visit relatives.
The crossing had been controlled by Israelis who shut it down before they pulled out of Gaza in September, ending 38 years of occupation.
Under Israel's security precautions, it would take hours or even days for Palestinians to get through. Zanoun did it today in just three minutes.
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, with help from European monitors.
Palestinains called it a step toward independence. It is the first time they have real control of a border.
Initially, the crossing will be open just four hours a day, but eventually it is to operate around the clock.
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.
The reopening bolstered Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' message that independence can only be won through negotiations and gave him a boost ahead of Jan. 25 parliamentary polls fiercely contested by the Islamic Hamas group.
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.
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.
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.
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.