GAZA CITY: Gaza’s Hamas rulers and the European Union on Thursday welcomed an Egyptian decision to permanently open the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Palestinian enclave.
Hamas hailed the move as "a courageous and responsible decision which falls in line with Palestinian and Egyptian public opinion," spokesman Fawzi Barhum said in a statement.
"We hope that it is a step towards the complete lifting of the siege on Gaza," he said, a day after Egypt announced it would open the crossing on a permanent basis to ease the blockade which has been in place since 2006.
The European Union also praised the move and said it was in consultations with Egypt, the Palestinians and Israel about returning its team of advisers to monitor activity along the frontier.
But Israel expressed concern over the Egyptian initiative, with Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai telling public radio it would create "a very problematic situation."
The measure, which will come into force on Saturday, will give Gazans a gateway to the world as Rafah is the only crossing which does not pass through Israel.
The crossing will be open for eight hours a day from 9:00 am, apart from Fridays and holidays, with an Egyptian security official telling AFP it would be for people only, not for the passage of goods.
The move was hailed by Israeli NGO Gisha, which campaigns for freedom of movement for Palestinians.
"Gisha welcomes the announcement that Egypt will expand the ability of Gaza residents to travel abroad via Rafah crossing, which has become Gaza’s gateway to the world, in light of Israel’s closure of Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters and restrictions on travel via Erez crossing," the group said.
The European Union said it was hoping to reinstate its EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) at the crossing, which had briefly served there under terms of a 2005 agreement between Israel and Egypt which was brokered by the United States.
"We welcome the decision by Egyptian authorities to open the Rafah crossing on 28 May. The EU has consistently called for opening of the border crossings to and from the Gaza Strip," a statement said.
"The EU stands ready to reactivate the EUBAM Rafah mission, once political and security conditions allow, in order to ensure the EU third party role at the Rafah crossing point," it said.
"Political consultations are ongoing with the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Israel in this regard."
The 2005 agreement saw Rafah put under Egyptian and Palestinian control, with the EUBAM observers taking up their positions at the crossing in November 2005 in a bid to prevent the free passage of weapons or personnel into the enclave.
But, seven months later, their mission was abruptly suspended following the capture by Gaza militants of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, prompting Israel to impose a tight blockade on the territory.
The blockade was tightened a year later when Hamas seized control of the territory, ousting forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
The Rafah crossing remained largely closed from June 2006 to June 2010, when Egypt opened it in the wake of a botched Israeli raid on a six-ship aid flotilla which was trying to reach Gaza, killing nine Turkish activists.
The diplomatic fallout from the operation forced Israel to ease the embargo on Gaza, although it still remains in place.
Egypt has actively supported Israel’s blockade, frequently coming in for harsh regional criticism for keeping the border closed and for building an underground wall in a bid to curb smuggling, which it views as a security risk.
But earlier this year, mass street protests in Egypt led to the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak, with the new military regime keen to review its policy on Gaza.
Although the Mubarak regime loosened its grip on the crossing in June 2010, Rafah was still subjected to tight controls, and only those with a visa or a foreign passport could cross, alongside those seeking medical attention, Gisha said.
Figures provided by the NGO show that over the past year, an average of 19,000 people a month have used the crossing — just 47 percent of the number who used it in the first half of 2006.