RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas today formally opened a border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. The opening of the Rafah terminal means residents of Gaza will be able to travel abroad freely for the first time since 1967. NPR's Eric Westervelt was at the ceremony today and he joins me now.
So, Eric, tell us about this crossing and the significance of today's ceremony.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
Well, Renee, hundreds of invited Palestinian, Egyptian security and political officials, as well as police, US and Europeans, involved in the region gathered under this big, colorful tent at the Rafah crossing. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cut a ribbon and he smiled, and the border's really been a chaotic mess the few times it has been opened in the weeks since Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in September ending 38 years of occupation. President Abbas said, `Partial Palestinian control of the border is a small but crucial step toward economic and political independence.' And he said, quote, "There'll be no more long lines, no more humiliation waiting to cross into Egypt."
But I have to say, several--probably 200 Palestinians had gathered there hoping to be able to cross and it was really just an official opening ceremony and they were not allowed to cross over and they were deeply frustrated that it was another day of waiting and another day of frustration.
MONTAGNE: And part of this deal is that European Union troops will be monitoring the crossing, but also, Israeli troops. How will that work?
WESTERVELT: Who controls this crossing is a small issue, perhaps, but it has big repercussions. Israel sees it as a crucial test for the Palestinian Authority's fledging security services, which have been plagued by infighting and corruption. The Palestinians see this as a step towards self-rule. After months of Palestinian-Israeli wrangling, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got herself personally involved earlier this month to try to seal an agreement. And under this deal, as you mentioned, European Union police and technical observers will jointly monitor the crossing with Palestinian security.
Israel will, however, get a real-time video and a computer feed of the border which will be fed to this joint Israeli-Palestinian command center and there's some hope that Israelis and Palestinians and European police officials working together daily at this crossing will sow the seeds for some future cooperation, as well.
MONTAGNE: Expand on what you just said about pressure from the United States. Israel was reluctant to give up control of the Rafah crossing.
WESTERVELT: Israel was deeply concerned that if Palestinians solely controlled this crossing, it would be used by Islamic militants, including the group Hamas, Islamic Jihad and perhaps even al-Qaeda to channel explosives, militants across the border into Gaza and then launch attacks against Israel. I talked to an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman today, Mark Regev, who told NPR, `Look, we're trying to balance the freedom of movement of the Palestinians with our legitimate security concerns,' and they are cautiously optimistic that the Palestinians, as they put it, can prove that they can control their borders.
MONTAGNE: Of course, this is just one crossing, if you will. Remind us of the larger issues regarding autonomy and freedom of movement for the residents of Gaza.
WESTERVELT: Many Palestinians I spoke to at this crossing said, `Look, this is just a small step.' They point out that Israel still controls the air space above Gaza, Israel still controls the sea lanes in and out of Gaza, and there's still no deal on reopening the Gaza airport, a crucial link to the outside world. Under this agreement, there is a test case where they're going to try to increase the freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank. That's supposed to start up in the middle of next month. But these other big issues, like the airport, like the sea lanes, they're still to be negotiated, along with the road map for peace, as this process moves forward.
MONTAGNE: And what about lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians? What's the significance of this Rafah opening?
WESTERVELT: Well, both sides are somewhat preoccupied, Renee, with internal politics; both hold elections early next year and this is just one border crossing. But there is hope that if Palestinians and Israelis, with these EU police monitors, can work together on this, there's hope that they can get the larger issues of the road map back on track and start to negotiate them. The big issues like settlements in the West Bank, the status of East Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees among other issues.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much, NPR's Eric Westervelt, in Gaza.
Today, the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza was transferred to Palestinian control.
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