The reopening is seen as a step forward in negotiations between Palestinian factions and Israel over the fate of an Israeli soldier.
Egypt opens Gaza border crossing
RAFAH, EGYPT // The Egyptian government opened its border with the Gaza Strip yesterday in what was seen as a sign of progress in negotiations among Palestinian factions and Israel. Some 5,000 Palestinian students and medical patients are being allowed to leave the territory; the border will remain open until tomorrow afternoon. At the Rafah border crossing between the blockaded Palestinian enclave and Egypt, crowds gathered to greet exiting Palestinians while others hauled clothing, dishwashers and refrigerators to families in the Gaza Strip. The coastal territory has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007, when Hamas, the Islamist political party, wrested control of the Strip from the more moderate Palestinian Authority. While the Egyptian government routinely opens the border at Rafah to limited traffic about once every month, this week's opening comes on the eve of a breakthrough in negotiations between Palestinian factions and Israel over the fate of Sgt Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who Hamas has held hostage since June 2006. A group of Hamas negotiators crossed the Rafah border yesterday morning, including Ismail Haniyeh, who was the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority before he was deposed during an internal power struggle in 2007. The group was headed for Cairo, where the Egyptian government will host the sixth round of reconciliation talks between the bitter Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah starting today. "It's a kind of a periodic thing that the Egyptian authorities do from time to time to relieve the desperation and humanitarian cases in Palestine," said Gamal Abdel Gawad, a security analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "But I think that there is some significance with the timing because there is a kind of higher publicity by the visit to Egypt of Haniyeh. "So Egypt is sending a signal to Hamas that we have a lot of things to offer to you and to Gaza. Ismail Haniyeh's visit to the crossing today is an indication that [Egypt] is including Hamas in the co-ordination." Mr Haniyeh told reporters yesterday that Hamas would be willing to accept shared control over the Rafah crossing between Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, European observers and the Egyptian government. Egypt has given the two sides until July 7 to resolve their differences and subscribe to an Egyptian-brokered power-sharing deal. But analysts in Egypt attributed the accelerated pace of negotiations to the new administration of Barack Obama, the US president. Since he took office in January, Mr Obama has revealed in his public statements and discussions with Israeli leaders that he may be less willing than his predecessor to offer unconditional support to the Jewish state and its expanding settlements in the West Bank. "Because we have a new American administration, we are seeing differences between the US government and the Israeli administration," said Emad Gad, a regional security analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "We are also seeing a new pragmatic approach from Hamas. I think they are speaking now about a grand deal concerning releasing Shalit and reaching a ceasefire. "After that, we can speak about a unity Palestinian government and resuming the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations according to the American-Egyptian plan. So we can see the opening of the gates as part of this deal." Mr Gad said Israeli and Palestinian negotiatiors were "hours or days away" from agreeing to the final terms on the status of Sgt Shalit, an Israeli soldier whose continued detention by Hamas has been a major sticking point in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Such an agreement, said Mr Gad, would pave the way towards a more permanent solution to the Gaza crisis, including a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza and, eventually, a lifting of Israel's blockade on the enclave. For the hundreds of Palestinians who were gathered on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing yesterday, the whims of international political negotiations were decidedly personal. One elderly Egyptian woman was pushing a huge trolley filled with kitchen appliances and luggage. She was headed to Gaza to attend the wedding of her son, whom she had not seen in two years because of the blockade. With tears welling in her eyes, she declined to answer questions. As many pushed and jostled to gain access to Gaza, others were leaving. Assad al Majdalawi, a professor at Al Aqsa University, led a group of young Palestinian swimmers who were hoping to join international-level competition - a rare opportunity for isolated Palestinian athletes. "You can see the situation in our faces," said Prof al Majdalawi. "We are university professors, but you can tell by how we look that we've been working [with our] hands, like we've been working with asphalt." Another group of men who said they were Palestinians living in Egypt were also pushing a large trolley filled with boxed kitchen-wares. They would not be entering Gaza themselves, they said, because they were former members of the Fatah-aligned security services. "There are patients coming and we're helping. Because we love Gaza, we're just waiting for any news," said Abu Jendal, 35. Mr Jendal blamed "Iran and Syria" for the continuing acrimony between the Palestinian factions. Arrests and fighting between the factions have increased in the past several weeks in the West Bank, which is controlled by the Fatah-dominated PLO. "I won't go back with Hamas in power. I won't go because they have no mercy," said Abu Jehad, 35, who said he has lived in Egypt since Hamas took control of Gaza two years ago. "Killing for them is as easy as killing chickens. To cut legs and hands doesn't bother them. Just because I have different political beliefs. "Everyone in the world has a country that they live in except for Palestinians," said Mr Jehad. "They have a country that lives inside themselves." firstname.lastname@example.org