RAFAH, Palestinian Territories — Hundreds of Palestinians travelled into and out of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday after Egypt opened its Rafah crossing for travel and humanitarian aid.
The opening took place in the wake of a deadly Israeli assault on a flotilla of aid ships that had sought to break a blockade on the coastal territory that was tightened after the Islamist movement took over in 2007.
"Rafah crossing is open today in all directions," Hamas border official Bashir Abu al-Najaa said in a statement.
The terminal is the only way in and out of Gaza that is not controlled by Israel.
Priority would be given to the sick and to pre-registered travellers, as well as those holding a visa or residency permits from elsewhere, he said.
Hamas and Egyptian border authorities said five busloads of travellers, or around 400 people, had entered Egypt by mid-afternoon with another 400 people expected to depart by the end of the day.
Hamas said more than 450 people had entered Gaza, while an Egyptian border official put the count at 200.
"The crossing authority will work to facilitate the travel of any citizen who wishes to without any limitations," Abu al-Najaa said.
"The Rafah crossing will remain open on a permanent basis in order to ease the unjust blockade on the Palestinian people."
Egypt has previously opened the crossing for short periods to send in humanitarian aid and allow the sick to leave Gaza, and Hamas greeted the decision to open the crossing with scepticism.
"We hope that the Rafah crossing will be open permanently and completely and not simply as a reaction," Hamas social affairs minister Ahmad al-Kurd told reporters.
"We don't need any more lives to be sacrificed in order to open the crossing."
At a packed waiting area outside the crossing an angry Umm Ahmad said she had little hope it would remain open.
"Egypt's doing this for the media. They are opening the crossing for a thousand people only, and tomorrow another thousand will cross, and then they will close it and the suffering will return," she said.
Ahmad Abu Tawil, an elderly traveller wearing a white skullcap, said he had been disappointed before on previous attempts to leave.
"There are so many problems, and so many times we have come to the crossing and then been turned back. The last time they opened the crossing my name was listed, and I was on bus number 11 (between the two sides), and then they stopped the whole process."
Egypt's official MENA news agency confirmed the crossing would be open for Palestinians returning from abroad and for those with visas or residency permits to leave the territory.
It said medical supplies, humanitarian aid and food would also be let in but only in coordination with the Egyptian Red Crescent.
Hamas border authorities said the Red Crescent had brought in six trucks loaded with medical supplies and generators as well as five minibuses donated by Saudi Prince Walid Bin Talal.
Israel and Egypt have largely sealed Gaza's borders since the 2006 capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas and other militants, with the closures tightened after Hamas ousted the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
Israel has said the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas from importing weapons and insists the humanitarian needs of Gaza's 1.5 million people are met by the dozens of truckloads of basic goods it allows in most days.
But the closures have severely hindered rebuilding following Israel's devastating three-week assault on Gaza that ended in January 2009, during which entire neighbourhoods were flattened and thousands of homes destroyed.
Some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed during the war launched in a bid to halt years of near-daily rocket attacks from the territory.
Since 2007, Gaza's economy has been largely sustained by international aid and the smuggling of goods through a vast network of tunnels from Egypt.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »