Egypt Opens Gaza Border Crossing

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip complain they are effectively imprisoned in their tiny territory when their border crossings are closed. Palestinians cannot enter or exit Gaza unless they have permission from either Israel or Egypt. In the past few years, Gaza's borders have often remained closed for weeks at a time. But on Monday the crossing point between Gaza and Egypt is open.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is a rare day in a Palestinian enclave known as the Gaza Strip. A border crossing opened today, which is rare, because Gaza is surrounded by Israel and Egypt, and both have kept the crossings closed for weeks at a time over the last couple of years.

Today, people and supplies have been allowed to move, and NPR's Peter Kenyon is at the border crossing of Rafah on the Egyptian side. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON: Hi, Steve. How are you?

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks. What have you seen?

KENYON: Well, it's a beautiful sunny day here - a little bit windy but a bright blue sky. And I'm at the actual crossing point. The black iron gates are slowly swinging open and closed from time to time, letting Palestinians out into Egypt or sometimes back in - people who need to get home. This is a very limited opening; not any kind of a mass exodus.

INSKEEP: Is this an opportunity to move supplies as well as people?

KENYON: It is. In fact, there is an aid convoy that had endured quite a few setbacks that has now finally arrived at the port of El Arish. That's about 25 miles away. And that is expected to come through as early as today, possibly tonight. There's some last minute logistical difficulties.

It's a British convoy, lead by the outspoken member of parliament, George Galloway. And they have finally arrived and they do hope to get in.

INSKEEP: And when you say an aid convoy, it reminds us that if you've got an area that's crowded, that's populous and that is also cut off from the world -that can't have very much economic activity - there's a certain amount of deprivation in there.

KENYON: We've been talking to people coming out and the conditions are extremely bad in Gaza. The reconstruction material is not being allowed in. Only the most basic food stuffs and things that can possibly be smuggled in, of course. But still, the conditions are very difficult. As you said, this is Gaza's only border with a country other than Israel, and the fact that it's been closed for such long periods of time is a source of great frustration.

I just spoke - for one example - to a 64-year-old woman named Zayna Attilla(ph) from Helwan. She got up at three in the morning to come here today. She's got three children, 11 grandchildren. They all live in Gaza, and she hasn't seen them for seven years. And she got to the gate here and was told she couldn't get through. So, these are the kind of stories you hear here.

INSKEEP: Of course, the border crossings have been very limited in Gaza ever since Hamas took control of Gaza more than two years ago, two-and-a-half years ago. And it's easy to explain why Israel would close its border crossings with Hamas-controlled Gaza. But, Peter, why would Egypt, most of the time, have its border crossings closed?

KENYON: This is a question that's asked very sharply and with quite a bit of frustration and anger around the Arab world and inside Egypt as well. Now, officially, Egypt says it has to respect its treaty agreements, and there are treaties that control who is supposed to be there to monitor everyone making these crossings in and out of Gaza.

Some of those people are, of course, are no longer there, since Hamas took over, and so that, technically, is the answer. But off the record, some officials also say they're very concerned about the Islamist Hamas movement themselves, and they are eager to make sure that things are kept under tight control there, so that's also part of the problem.

That has also lead to the very lucrative smuggling business with the myriad of tunnels that snake underneath right where I'm standing.

INSKEEP: Is Egypt cracking down on the smuggling?

KENYON: Egypt is making an effort. There has been a lot of construction. Egypt is being a bit coy about what exactly it is; others say it is an underground barrier. But there is a lot of talk among people here in Rafah and in Arish that the smuggling business may get a bit more difficult in the months or years to come.

INSKEEP: An underground barrier because some of this smuggling has gone by tunnel?

KENYON: A lot of the smuggling is done by tunnel, although there's quite a bit of smuggling going across the border into Israel outside of here.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon is watching a rare opening of a border crossing into Gaza. He's on the Egyptian side. Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

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