The exit of the former President, Hosni Mubarak, following the Egyptian uprising has had its first tangible impact on Cairo's foreign policy towards the Palestinians as the new interim government on Saturday lifted most cross-border restrictions on the movement of Gaza residents into Egypt that had been imposed for the last four years.
The blockade on the movement of most Gazans, except for those who needed emergency medical treatment or were students, had been imposed since 2007, after Palestinian group Hamas routed forces loyal to rival Fatah, causing it to exit from the coastal strip. Gaza, on account of its port, is expected to emerge as the economic lifeline of an independent Palestinian state.
Israel's stifling siege over Gaza was broken on Saturday when an ambulance ferrying patients for treatment crossed into Egypt. Around 400 people were reportedly awaiting crossing into Egypt on Saturday.
But restrictions have not been entirely removed on all Palestinians.
Women and children can move in and out of Rafah without visas during six days in a week, when the border crossing will remain open during the day. However, young men in the 18-40 bracket, who could pose a security threat, will have to obtain Egyptian visas, which are issued in Ramallah. Al Jazeera is reporting that Egyptians may open a representative office in Gaza, from where visas might be obtained.
Egypt's new military rulers are under mass pressure to ease the suffering of the Palestinians. Ordinary Egyptians are now feely demonstrating their support for their besieged neighbours. Egypt announced that it would open the Rafah crossing after the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas reconciled their differences by signing an accord in Cairo earlier in May.
While the Egyptian decision will provide badly needed humanitarian relief, the opening of the Rafah crossing is unlikely to impart the much needed momentum for unshackling reconstruction activity in Gaza, whose infrastructure was badly damaged during Israel's winter intrusion, ending in January 2009. Except Rafah, Israel controls all the border crossing points, included those designated for commercial traffic. The Karni crossing in the past had been widely used for cargo transfers.
The Kerem Shalom crossing and the Sufa crossing further to south are also equipped to handle cargo.
Objecting to the opening of the Rafah crossing on security grounds, Israeli Vice-Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said in a radio interview that “if the crossing is opened without supervision … it will enable the transfer of weapons, explosives, money and terrorists who might arrive from abroad as well, whether al-Qaeda or Iranian agents and trainers.” But opinion within Israel is divided. Giora Eilan, former head of Israel's national Security Council, said the opening of the Rafah crossing would help Israel better counter the accusation that it was besieging the coastal strip. “The whole world claims that Gaza is under siege and Israel is to blame,” he told Israel Radio. Now, “the Egyptians and Hamas are saying clearly, Gaza is not under siege, the crossing is open. … Diplomatically this gives Israel a great advantage.” Top Palestinian officials say the Rafah crossing should be used for commercial traffic as well, and Israeli objections on security considerations are unfounded.
“Opening this door does not mean Egypt wants to allow bombs and explosives ... Egypt wants to allow safe passage of individuals who want to conduct their lives,” the former Palestinian Foreign Minister, Nabil Shaath, observed.