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Egypt reopens border with Gaza

From Kevin Flower, CNN
Hundreds of people -- including this Palestinian boy's family -- are due to cross the border from Gaza to Egypt on Saturday.
Hundreds of people -- including this Palestinian boy's family -- are due to cross the border from Gaza to Egypt on Saturday.
  • NEW: "Procedures were excellent," says one middle-aged Palestinian on his first visit to Egypt
  • More than 600 Palestinians made the crossing Saturday
  • Egypt reopens its border with Gaza, opening access to Palestinians
  • The border crossing was closed by Israel and Egypt in 2007 to cut off Hamas
  • Egypt
  • Gaza
  • Rafah

Jerusalem (CNN) -- In a highly symbolic break with previous policy, Egypt reopened its border crossing into Gaza on Saturday, opening the door for Palestinians to the outside world and raising fears among some Israelis that militant attacks will increase.

"Procedures were excellent," said Younes Ahmed, who described his travel into Egypt as the first such visit in his life. "I hope there will be peace between our people and I want to thank the Egyptian people and the Egyptian government ... we always hope for easier ways for Palestinians because our people suffered enough."

Crossing officials said more than 600 Palestinians passed Saturday through the Rafah border, which had been subject to frequent closures by Egypt after Hamas, an Islamic militant group, took control of Gaza in June 2007.

The closure of the border had been part of an embargo policy by Egypt and Israel aimed at cutting off Hamas, though it simultaneously created an economic hardship in Gaza by limiting shipments of goods in and out of the country.

Egypt opted to reopen the border to offer relief to the people of Gaza, said Ambassador Menha Bakhoum of the country's foreign ministry.

"Today, we are facing a new stage, a new stage were this blockade is defeated," said a Hamas representative at the crossing. "This step is to support the resistance of the Palestinian people to face the Zionist blockade."

"This is a Palestinian-Egyptian frontier and it's not the business of the invaders," said Salam Baraka, general director of border police. "This border does not submit but to the Egyptian-Palestinian rule."

Palestinian Authority adviser and negotiator Nabil Shaath heralded the move by the government in Cairo, calling it a "brave and bold decision" that demonstrated "the new Egypt stands by the Palestinian people." It was seen as a victory by many in the Hamas government of Gaza, which staged a celebration rally Saturday near the crossing.

Some in Israel's security establishment have privately expressed concerns that the increased traffic at Rafah could serve to allow more militants and weapons to cross in and out of Gaza and that it could ultimately serve to bolster the position of Hamas, which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization, but the Israeli government has said little publicly.

Neither the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor the foreign ministry would publicly comment due to the sensitive nature of relations with Egypt.

Sari Bashi, who serves as director of Gisha, an Israeli organization that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement, welcomed the changes at the crossing and said Israel need not be overly concerned.

"It continues to prevent goods from traveling via Rafah and it also continues to limit travel to those listed in the Israeli-approved Palestinian population registry," Bashi said of the new Egyptian policy. "Egypt is allowing an incremental and welcome change, but it is still expressing its willingness to engage Israel and engage Israeli security concerns."

The Rafah crossing was open sporadically between June and January, when Egypt ordered it opened to those in need of medical care, students, and foreign passport and residency card holders. Among those people allowed to cross were those wounded during an Israeli assault aboard a flotilla of ships headed to Gaza last year.

Rafah is one of two crossings through which Palestinians can exit Gaza; the other is controlled by Israel and bars passage by most Palestinians save for those with emergency medical conditions.

Since the flotilla raid, Israel has allowed a greater amount of goods to enter Gaza, but it still maintains a complete blockade of the airspace and territorial waters and has limited most exports.

After Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was forced from office, the interim government promised to reopen the border.

CNN's Paul Cosley and Talal Abu Rahmah contributed to this report.