Israel has enforced a strict blockade of the Gaza strip since 2007. That's when the Islamist militant group Hamas took control of the terrority. Egypt's former government under Hosni Mubarak helped enforce the blockade. It prevented most Palestinians from leaving Gaza through Rafah, along the Egyptian border. Now, with Mubarak gone, Egyptian's transitional government says the crossing is open, and it's open for good.
Most Gazans are now allowed to cross through the passenger terminal at Rafah into Egypt without a visa. Men between the ages of 18 and 40 still have to get special permission from Egyptian authorities. But this is a big change for a place with a population of 1.5 million people and, for the most part, only one way in or out of the territory.
Ahmed Abdullah is from the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza City. When he heard the border would re-open, he got on the phone with his oldest son. Ahmed Abdullah's son lives in the West Bank town of Jericho. Abdullah hasn't seen his son in ten years and he's never met his three son's three daughters.
Abdullah said he tried and tried to get permission to leave Gaza for a family visit but he was turned down every time. Now, he hopes to arrange to meet his son and granddaughters in Egypt.
The opening of the border at Rafah, Abdullah said, is great news for Gazans. "This is the only window we can see the whole world. We are living in a prison. We are living in a prison. The people here through the four years of the siege, they were living in depression," Abdullah said.
Female students are coming and going from class at Al Azhar University campus. It will now be easier for them to leave Gaza by way of Egypt to work, to study or just to travel abroad.
Alaa Hazal is excited about studying in France next year. "It's very important to build my character, and my parents are very happy because I'm going to start my life and after that, i'm thinking of geting my masters degree," Hazal said.
Last year, a Gaza engineer named Ali Nakhala sent his teenage son to live and study in Egypt. Nakhala was not allowed to accompany the boy on his first trip outside of Gaza. Nakhala said the fact that Palestinians from this tiny enclave can now travel abroad gives them piece of mind.
"We can go at any time," Nakhala said. "Even if just the feeling, I have the feeling that I am not in a prison, this is enough." But Nakhala said the opening of the border terminal at Rafah won't save Gaza's struggling economy.
The crossing is for people, not goods. Nakhala works for a building company. And he said business is way down. "The entry points with Israel are not open one hundred percent. There is a list of many prohibited materials, mainly cement, steel and gravel, which are the core of the building industry. And actually it is not allowed except with tight coordination," Nakhala explained.
That means the network of smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt is likely to stay in business. The tunnels are used to bring in everything from cement to livestock to weapons.
Israelis have expressed concern about the opening of the border. They say it could help Hamas get hold of more weapons.
On the other hand, the lifting of restrictions on travel for Gazans could work to Israel benefit politically. Israel has long been criticized for the blockade, and blamed for Gaza's humanitarian crisis. If conditions in Gaza improve, Israel might feel a little less heat from the international community.
Gaza Strip (Image by Gringer)
Rafah border crossing (Flickr Image: Int'l Transport Workers' Federation)