Gaza Crossing Opens in Ceremony Only Palestinian Authority leaders celebrate the re-opening of the Gaza Strip's border crossing with Egypt, a main gateway to the outside world for Palestinians. But no one was allowed to pass through Rafah on Friday. European Union inspectors, who will help monitor the opening, are still arriving.
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Gaza Crossing Opens in Ceremony Only

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Gaza Crossing Opens in Ceremony Only

Gaza Crossing Opens in Ceremony Only

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

And it was a remarkable day in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian Authority leaders celebrated the reopening of the border crossing with Egypt. It is a gateway to the outside world for Palestinians, and it is the first time they have had control of the crossing. But no one was allowed to pass through Rafah today. European Union inspectors who will help monitor the opening are still arriving. So there was some frustration among Palestinians who see control of this border as a key step toward independence. From Gaza, NPR's Eric Westervelt prepared our report.

(Soundbite of music)

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Music and prayers welcomed hundreds of invited Arab and Western officials under a big colorful cloth tent to celebrate the reopening of the Rafah crossing under Palestinian control for the first time in history. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took to a stage adorned with flowers and flags under a banner that read Rafah Crossing: The Palestinian Gateway to Freedom.

President MAHMOUD ABBAS (Palestinian Authority): (Through Translator) We'll move freely now, without having anyone disturb our entrance or exit. No one will humiliate us anymore. After today, we will not see lines of people waiting for weeks at this crossing point.

(Soundbite of celebration)

WESTERVELT: Free to move perhaps, just not today. Not far from the pomp and speeches, Fataya Najar(ph) and dozens of other women sat and waited all day in frustration. She was hoping to cross into Egypt and then travel on to Jordan today to see her husband and sons there. But no ordinary Gazans were allowed to pass today. That starts tomorrow.

Ms. FATAYA NAJAR: (Through Translator) Of course we're frustrated. All the ceremony and speeches and important people, and they don't let us cross. To really feel the happiness of this crossing point, we have to have it open. Otherwise, this is all just nonsense.

WESTERVELT: This one small border crossing has enormous significance. Israel sees it as a crucial test for the Palestinian Authority's fledgling security services which have been plagued by ineffectiveness, corruption and infighting. The Palestinians see it as a vital step toward self-rule.

Israel closed the Rafah border crossing this summer right before it unilaterally withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza after 38 years of occupation. The Rafah crossing was open briefly just after the pullout, but chaos reigned as Palestinian and Egyptian police were often overwhelmed. After months of Palestinian-Israeli wrangling, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice intervened earlier this month to seal an agreement. Under the deal, European Union observers will jointly monitor the crossing with Palestinian security. Mark Ott is the EU special representative for the Middle East peace process.

Mr. MARK OTT (EU Special Representative): I think there is a will to try. It is a test, but at the same time it is a fair, concrete step. It's actually something happening, so I'm very encouraged that today reopens maybe a new context.

WESTERVELT: Under the deal, Israel will get a real-time video and computer feed of the border to a joint EU-Israeli-Palestinian command center. Special Representative Ott says Palestinians will make the final call on any disputed person of interest trying to cross the border after consulting with Israeli and EU police. But how that will work in practice could prove a major test for both sides. Stefan Feller, one of the EU's top police officials on the ground here, says there may be some growing pains. But he says the EU moved fast to set up its first policing operation ever in the Middle East.

Mr. STEFAN FELLER (EU Police Official): This is quick. We are doing this including fact-finding, including political decision-making, including making it happen within two weeks. But there is a physical capacity, a barrier. You don't have standing police forces in member states.

WESTERVELT: Israeli officials say they're working to balance Palestinian freedom of movement with legitimate security concerns. They fear militant groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas will use the crossing to smuggle weapons and extremists to attack the Jewish state. Many Israelis are likely to be upset that two senior Hamas leaders were at today's ceremony, although neither spoke to the crowd. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.

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