Palestinians Take Control of Rafah Crossing

As Palestinian authorities asserted control for the first time over an international border, hundreds of Gaza residents crossed into Egypt. The first to cross made the journey for a wide variety of reasons.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

In the southern Gaza Strip today, there was a mix of frenzy and joy as Palestinians crossed into Egypt through a border checkpoint now under Palestinian control. The Palestinian Authority took over the crossing yesterday, following an agreement brokered by the US and European Union. Now for the first time, Palestinians have gained partial control of one of their international borders. NPR's Eric Westervelt has our report from Rafah in Gaza.

(Soundbite of voices; vehicle horn)

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

In the early afternoon, the first busload of Palestinian passed into Egypt. There was frustration and confusion. The border was open for just four hours today. Palestinian authorities hope to expand hours soon, but today, Gazans pushed and tussled, dismayed at the disorganization and long lines as Palestinian security officials struggled to screen passports in a timely manner, but most Palestinians still called it a happy day. For nearly four decades of Israeli military occupation, they point out, it was common to wait for hours, even days, for Israeli permission to cross. Sixty-five-year-old Mohammad Shardon(ph) is a lemon and orange farmer from Jabaliya. He says it's his first time traveling to Egypt in more than a decade.

Mr. MOHAMMAD SHARDON (Farmer): (Through Translator) God willing, Gaza will not be a jail anymore. We hope that economically and psychologically it will be much better now.

WESTERVELT: Many ordinary Gazans such Shardon went out of their way to express gratitude to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice whose personal involvement earlier this month helped broker the deal.

Mr. SHARDON: (Through Translator) We really thank the Americans and Minister Rice for solving this issue. I thank America for finally understanding our problems and working to solve them.

WESTERVELT: Palestinians see this partial border control as a key move towards self-rule in Gaza in the wake of Israel's unilateral withdrawal this summer. A Palestinian security official says males between 18 and 40 years of age are given more scrutiny at the border. Israeli officials worry that Islamic militants will exploit the crossing to smuggle weapons and extremists to attack the Jewish state. Under the deal, Israel gets a real-time computer and video feed of the border to a joint EU and Israeli-Palestinian situation room. EU monitors, who are still arriving, were mostly out of sight today.

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Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Palestinians say they hope this is a step forward. Mohammad Shardon's 30-year-old nephew Ismael(ph) was injured and spent a year in an Israeli jail during the first intifada or uprising in the early '90s. A bullet fragment is lodged in his back near his spine he says and he's seeking medical treatment in Egypt he can't get in Gaza.

ISMAEL: (Through Translator) We expect that this is the beginning for the way ahead. We all looking forward to having the port open, the airport working and to have the road open from Gaza to the West Bank.

WESTERVELT: Under the agreement, bus travel between Gaza and the West Bank is scheduled to start in mid-December, the first regular transport between the areas in five years. And Palestinians got the go-ahead to start building a new seaport. In addition, cargo exports from Gaza's two main terminals, Karni and Kerem Shalom, are to increase next month. Israel still controls the airspace and sea lanes around Gaza and there's no agreement in sight on reopening Gaza's airport, which was heavily damaged during the conflict. But today, Ismael's 24-year-old wife, Halema Shardon(ph), isn't thinking about the politics of peace. She says she's looking forward to getting away, to breathe.

Mrs. HALEMA SHARDON: (Through Translator) We really want to go and just enjoy ourselves and have some fun in Egypt. We've been locked in here in Gaza for years doing ...(unintelligible).

WESTERVELT: Late in the afternoon, the Shardon family finally got through the crossing as the border was about to close. Others weren't as lucky.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: A despondent Maruf Abu Shar(ph), a wheelchair-bound stroke victim, sat in the blazing sun next to the main crossing gate. He and his wife Esha(ph) were not among the some 1,500 people allowed to pass through today. `They keep passing us from office to office,' she says, referring to the Palestinian police. Her husband wept.

(Soundbite of crying)

ESHA: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: A chaotic and frustrating first day at the Rafah border crossing, but as one traveler said, `At least it's our chaos.'

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, at the Rafah border crossing, Gaza.

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