All Quiet in Rafah: Egypt's Gaza Border Opens Not with a Bang but a Whisper

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Bernat Armangue / AP

Palestinians wait inside a bus before crossing into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, May 28, 2011.

When the authorities at the Rafah border terminal closed down their offices on Saturday, they were wrapping up the first day of a new era in Egyptian foreign policy. In a move hailed by many Palestinians and Egyptians as a break from years of unpopular Mubarak-era diplomacy — the joint enforcement, with Israel, of a four-year blockade on the Gaza Strip — Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces launched a new set of border rules that observers said would give Gazan Palestinians back their pre-blockade freedom.

Palestinian women and children, as well as men under the age of 18 or over the age of 40, are now permitted to enter Egypt for up to one month without a visa. Men between the ages of 18 and 40 may be granted permits to enter for reasons such as enrollment in Egyptian universities or a need for medical treatment. In effect, the new conditions seem to read, Gazans will now have a great deal more freedom to travel outside their 139-square-mile territory, which they have likened to a large, outdoor prison since the blockade was imposed in 2007 after the Islamist group Hamas took control.

And yet, opening day marked one of the slowest business days that Rafah Crossing had seen in years. Egyptian officials reported that roughly 400 people crossed into Egypt at Rafah on Saturday, and 153 into Gaza. "I think most of the people don't believe they can actually leave the Gaza Strip. It has been a long time," says Said al-Batran, a Palestinian-Danish surgeon who was trying to cross in the opposite direction.

Indeed, the atmosphere inside the arrivals terminal was mysteriously subdued for much of the day. The shouting and tears on either side of the crossing, typical of scenes from the blockaded border's past, were largely absent. A team of medics from the Egyptian Ministry of Health sat idly in a corner with no patients to treat. And only several dozen travellers seemed to populate the hall at any given time. "We noticed today that there were more journalists than Palestinians," observes Ahmed Abu Deraa, an Egyptian journalist from North Sinai.

The Israeli government had warned that opening the border would threaten the region's security; weapons and terrorists would flood across in both directions. Gaza's Islamist rulers, Hamas, would become empowered. Israel's border security would plummet. "Do you see any missiles here?" scoffs a Hamas border official as as small groups of Palestinians trickled through metal detectors, and even fewer drifted out of the Egyptian departures hall into Gaza.

Could it be that Gaza is suffering from denial, as al-Batran suggested? Maybe it's just confusion, Egyptian border officials offered. "It's the weekend, so they probably didn't realize it was open," one customs official says while waiting for customers.

Afaf Hassan, who was on her way to Egypt, suggested the opposite: there was so much anticipation inside the densely-packed Strip that many people had decided to wait out the crowds. "I think a lot of people didn't come because they expected there to be a huge rush," she says. "People were calling me and I told them it's empty. There will probably be a big rush in the next few days."

More likely, others suggested: not a whole lot has changed. A huge proportion of Gaza's population (those men ages 18 to 40) are still largely banned from travel. "The truth about Rafah is that they never opened it. Three days ago it was exactly the same," said Deraa. When the military had announced the shift in policy, he initially expected to see thousands flood across the border. In the end, he says: "It was extreme propaganda — that has backfired because the journalists came and saw it."

Egypt's temporary military caretakers may have every reason to propagandize as the country hurtles through its fourth month of rocky transition after the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak. On Friday, thousands of mostly young activists flooded into Cairo's Tahrir Square for what many dubbed "the Second Revolution" to protest perceived delays in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' implementation of the revolution's demands. Those include speedy trials for ex-President Hosni Mubarak and his cronies, better security, economic reforms, and an end to military tribunals for civilians.

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