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Egypt Reopens Gaza Border Crossing

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Egypt Reopens Gaza Border Crossing

Middle East

Egypt Reopens Gaza Border Crossing

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Egypt reopened its border with the Gaza Strip today, ending a four-year blockade. That brought badly needed relief to the Palestinian territory's one and a half million people, but it could also deepen Egypt's growing rift with Israel. Israeli officials worry that easy passage between Egypt and Gaza will mean more militants and weapons flowing into the Palestinian area.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from the border crossing in the Egyptian town of Rafah.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Egyptian police officers struggled to open the rusted gate on their side of the crossing as a dozen Palestinians with suitcases pressed close.

(Soundbite of crowd)

NELSON: One of the first to cross back into Gaza was Rokia Saga, who is 60.

Ms. ROKIA SAGA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Thank God and thank Egypt, she said, raising her hands in praise before her wheelchair was pushed inside the gate.

Israel and Egypt under Hosni Mubarak shuttered the crossing after the Islamist militant group Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007. The closure plus a naval blockade were meant to weaken Hamas. But all Gazans suffered as their economy ground to a halt. Few Palestinians except for people requiring medical treatment or students were allowed to cross the sealed border.

After Mubarak was ousted, the new Egyptian government decided to redefine its relationship with the Palestinians. It recently helped broker a peace agreement between the Fatah and Hamas factions, and today, reopened the border.

Mr. MAHMOUD ABU MUSABA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Mahmoud Abu Musaba says he rushed back from Algeria when he heard the crossing would be reopening. He hasn't been home since December. Under the new system, there are few restrictions on who comes and goes.

But one Mubarak legacy that remains intact is for Palestinian men between the ages of 18 and 40. They have to get visas before being allowed to enter Egypt, which often requires a background check.

Marwan el Halabi, 29, says he has mixed feelings about that. He has Canadian citizenship and was returning to the Gaza Strip to see his family for the first time in six years.

Mr. MARWAN EL HALABI: Coming from Canada, to be honest, I'm with, like, I'm with security 100 percent. So whatever it takes, security-wise, that's all I have to say. But it's sad. I'm Palestinian myself, and yeah, it's a disappointing picture to look at.

NELSON: Officials say the movement of people across the border was smooth. Many travelers say they were pleased, describing the process as dignified and quick, compared to the past.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

NELSON: Buses moved travelers between the Egyptian and Gaza passenger terminals. Still, by the end of the day, only a few hundred crossed from Gaza into Egypt, and even fewer the other way. Some passengers say it was because no one believed the crossing would actually reopen. But those who did cross say they felt liberated, like Samah Ahmad.

Donning a checkered Palestinian scarf, the 30-year-old was all smiles after she arrived in Egypt for the first time in five years.

Ms. SAMAH AHMAD: We feel that we are big family. We didn't need the border to separate between us. It means many things. It means that the Egyptians, they are - really care about the Palestinian case.

NELSON: In the nearby Egyptian town of Rafah, residents like Ra'ad Auda say they do care.

Mr. RA'AD AUDA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says he's happy the border is open to his Palestinian brothers. It will help them improve their quality of life, he explains. The shopkeeper says it'll also mean more business for him at a time when the Egyptian economy is suffering.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

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