David Byers
The Times
July 1, 2008 - 3:25pm

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were today queuing in their hundreds at the territory's hated border with Egypt after it was opened for the first time in months.

Crowds gathered at the Rafah crossing after Egypt agreed to ease the closure for two days, with officials saying that Palestinians requiring medical attention would be allowed treatment at Egyptian hospitals.

The Rafah crossing — the main gateway for Gaza’s 1.4 million people to leave the country — was sealed permanently after the Islamist group Hamas's military takeover of Gaza from the pro-Western Fatah group in a coup a year ago.

The closure, which coincided with Israel's decision to seal off its main Erez and Karni crossings, has prevented people from travelling for medical care, studies and family visits and has left the Gaza Strip isolated and increasingly impoverished. Hamas has refused to adhere to Western demands to recognise Israel's right to exist, and stop rocket attacks. It has also refused to return Corporal Gilad Shalit, a captured Israeli soldier kidnapped in a cross-border raid two years ago.

Today's opening of Rafah is the first time Palestinians from Gaza have been allowed to leave the blockaded territory and go to Egypt since January, when Hamas blew up the border wall in an audacious operation — allowing hundreds of thousands of people to move in and out of Egypt for several days before it was resealed.

As Palestinians queued at the crossing today, 50 Gazans with medical conditions were the first allowed out, travelling across the border in ambulances. Many others continued to wait in long lines, with women and children among those waiting to cross.

Although Rafah lies on the Gaza-Egypt border, Israel has had the power to halt the crossing’s operations because European Union representatives monitoring the passage require Israeli security clearance to operate. That clearance has not been given since the Hamas takeover, and Israel has insisted that Rafah would not “return to normal business" until Corporal Shalit is released.

Israel had temporarily eased border restrictions with Gaza after a recent Egyptian-mediated ceasefire between the Jewish state and Hamas. It resealed the borders after the ceasefire was breached by rockets fired into Israel by the Islamic Jihad group and the Fatah-affiliated al-Asqa Martyrs Brigade. Hamas said that its Palestinian rivals were firing the rockets to undermine its authority.


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