Egypt-Gaza Crossing Reopens To New Era

Egypt formally reopens its border with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Saturday. It's an offshoot of the Egyptian-mediated reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant Palestinian faction in the West Bank. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson talks with Scott Simon from Rafah.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In the Middle East, Palestinians are celebrating the reopening of a key border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Egypt shut down the crossing at Rafah four years ago after the militant group Hamas gained control of the Gaza Strip. There have been no reports of trouble at the border today, but fears remain that militants will have a new avenue into Israel. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Rafah; joins us now. Soraya, thanks for being with us.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: You're welcome.

SIMON: And you're on the Egyptian side of the border. What can you see?

NELSON: The people who've been crossing today, it's not as large a group as people were expecting. We are talking several hundred Palestinians that have crossed and it has definitely tapered off. But the thing is the people who you're not seeing many of are men between the ages of 18 and 40. They require a visa in order to be able to come into Egypt and that is something that's being done for security reasons; was the way it was described to us by some of the border officials here.

We do have a lot of infirm today as well, people who are seeking hospital treatment who've been waiting for days to cross. And they were all, I guess, shuttled off to the border today so they could get to their medical treatment. But certainly not the large crowd that people were expecting on this side of the border anyway.

SIMON: Any tensions? Any other kind of moods?

NELSON: No tensions. The Egyptians seemed very relaxed as well. Certainly on this side, especially around the border area. Smuggler tunnels have been a real issue, security has been a real issue. But you don't really get the sense of that. I mean, the cafes are open. They're happy for the business. You see Egyptian baggage handlers who have found a newfound work again and they were very happy. And everyone seems relaxed, including the military and the police officers here on this side who are doing the security.

SIMON: Soraya, why did new authorities in Egypt end this blockade at the border now and what are the implications for Hamas?

NELSON: Well, this is part of Egypt trying to reestablish itself as a leader in the region. They have taken it upon themselves to work on reconciliation, for example, between Fatah and Hamas, you know, the two disparate factions in the Palestinian areas and this was sort of a second step. And it also reflects the mood of the people of Egypt. They were never quite in favor of this strong, one-two approach, if you will, that Israel and Mr. Mubarak's regime had taken.

So, this is sort of redefining themselves and casting themselves in a new light.

SIMON: Now, of course, Israel has expressed concerns that the Rafah crossing might increase their security concerns. Any reaction - official or unofficial -from Israelis today?

NELSON: I know that there has been some concern expressed as you said. Certainly, the smuggler tunnels have been of great concern to the Israelis who have accused Hamas of using them to transport weapons and rockets and the like into the Strip. But at this point, there doesn't seem to be anything that we are hearing on this side.

I did ask the Palestinians who are coming across whether or not they saw any Israelis or any international monitors or anybody besides the Palestinians handling their side of the departure, if you will, into Egypt. And they said, no, all they saw were the Palestinians there handling that. So, it's unclear what steps will come next from either Israel or the international community with regards to this.

SIMON: What might be some of the implications for relations between Israel and Egypt of the reopening of this crossing?

NELSON: Well, certainly this creates some tension but is it more than what was created over the brokering of the deal between Fatah and Hamas? Certainly the response has been, again, more muted. I mean, Israel is not happy about this but they did not make the strong statements that one heard before. But this certainly is going to redefine that relationship.

I mean, I know that there is some nervousness I think on both sides about how this evolution, if you will, if the Egyptian-Israeli relationship is going to proceed.

SIMON: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reporting from the Rafah border crossing in Egypt. Thanks so much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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