RAFAH, EGYPT // One day after the Egyptian government opened its border with the Gaza Strip, hundreds of Palestinians were still waiting to leave their isolated coastal enclave. Egypt decided to temporarily open its border with Gaza on Tuesday in response to Israel's deadly attacks early this week on a flotilla of aid ships that were trying to breach Israel's three-year-old blockade.
The opening of the border at Rafah may indicate that Egypt has reached the limits of its patience with Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip - a policy with which Egypt has collaborated since Hamas took control there in 2007. "I see this as a capitulation on the part of Egypt," wrote Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, in an e-mail yesterday. "It is an indication of how negative the impact of Israeli action is on countries that have a peace treaty with it. Egypt has been adamant about this for over four years and has paid a high price for its position. This became untenable after last weekend."
For most of yesterday, the scene at the border remained placid, as Palestinians trickled through in small groups. Security officials reported that by 4pm - two hours before the border station closed - more than 500 Palestinians had been allowed passage into Egypt. Those who were allowed through reported that several hundred people were still waiting on the Gaza side of the border. The security official blamed the delays on the Hamas authorities who he said were "disorganised" and were allowing people to approach the border without the proper documentation.
Those in need of medical care were among the first to be processed. Mohammed Badie, a confectioner from Gaza, was on his way to Cairo yesterday with his wife and two daughters to seek treatment for recurring heart attacks and his wife's back problems. Neither has seen a doctor since last summer, when Palestinian officials gave him a rare permission to visit an Israeli hospital. "We wish such a crisis had never happened, but we actually took advantage of this decision by the president of Egypt. We were very lucky," said Mr Badie, as local bedouin luggage carriers wrestled with each other to carry his baggage. "A person who has a heart attack in Gaza is as good as dead."
Israel's attacks on the flotilla, which according to the most recent reports killed nine pro-Palestinian activists, have attracted the sort of global opprobrium that recalls Israel's three-week assault on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. During last year's air and ground attacks, Egypt elected to keep its border with Israel shut, even as casualties mounted among Palestinian civilians. That decision came at a high diplomatic price for Egypt, which has seen its influence in the Arab world wane as new players - many of whom are more willing to co-operate with political Islamists such as Hamas - take on more influential roles.
But as the tone and tenor of the international community's outrage sharpened again this week, Egypt may have decided it can no longer collaborate with an Israeli security policy that so frequently violates international norms on human rights. "Egypt is taking the right stance. It is responding to international demands" to relieve the plight of the Palestinians, said Abdul Raouf el Reedy, a foreign policy expert and a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States.
Egypt hopes that opening the border to allow aid and supplies into the Gaza Strip will relieve some of the Palestinians' suffering and may avert further violence, he added. "Egypt does not want to have more bloodshed, either on the borders or on the sea." Other observers, however, took a more cynical view of Egypt's motives and the level of help the Egyptian government will be willing to provide the Palestinians.
"Opening the borders, I think, will be temporary to only absorb the rage and anger," said Mohammed Habib, a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist opposition political group. Mr Habib said two Brotherhood members of parliament were among the 10 Egyptians on board the flotilla this week. "Egypt just wants just to pass this critical situation and after that, everything will return as it used to be between Egypt and Israel."
The same state of normality, he might have said, that has persisted for several generations. Among the littered baggage and chaotic comings-and-goings at the Rafah crossing yesterday was Raisa Falouna, 75, who was en route to Jordan via Cairo. Once in Jordan, she plans to receive medical care for her hypertension, diabetes and other ailments. She also hopes to finally see her daughter who lives in the UAE and whom she has not seen in five years. "Since I was 12 I have been seeing wars. And now I keep hearing that we may go back home, but all of this is nonsense. Nothing ever happens," said Ms Falouna. The home she referred to was the town of Majdal, what is now the city of Ashkelon in Israel.
"This is an injustice. I left Majdal when I was 12 and now I am a grandmother. I wish I could go back to Majdal." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org