Palestinians assert control of frontier

RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Palestinians asserted control for the first time over an international frontier on Saturday as hundreds of Gazans moved across a newly opened terminal at Rafah into neighbouring Egypt.

Travellers exchanged embraces and some flashed V-for victory signs, happy to be freer to travel and to be processed by Palestinian police rather than Israeli soldiers who occupied the Gaza Strip for 38 years before they withdrew in September.

"I feel free and happy as a bird with 10 wings," said Jihad Zanoun, 29, the first Palestinian to have his passport stamped at the Rafah terminal formally opened in a ribbon cutting ceremony a day earlier. Israel had barred Zanoun from leaving Gaza for three years citing security concerns.

Hundreds of Palestinians, some who had slept there for days, crowded the grounds where buses took them in groups of about 60 to the terminal. Dozens also poured in from Egypt back to Gaza.

About 20 European police monitors were on hand, standing or sitting with the Palestinian officials under a deal brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to reopen Gaza and provide a crucial lifeline to its people and economy.

The Rafah crossing had been largely shut since Israel's exit from coastal Gaza, due to Israeli security concerns.

Under the deal Israeli officials would watch the crossing alongside Palestinians via videolink to a nearby monitoring station in southern Israel, looking out for suspected militants or any attempts to smuggle in weapons.

Pietro Pistolese, who heads the European Union monitors, said because the terminal was running smoothly, it would be open for five hours on Sunday, up from four hours on Saturday.

The crossing is due to open full time only after all 70 European Union inspectors arrive, probably by mid-December.

The Rafah deployment marks the EU's first monitoring role in the Palestinian territories.

EU SEES "FRIENDLY ATMOSPHERE"

Pistolese told reporters the terminal would "open a link between the Gaza Strip and other countries", and he hoped it would operate in a "friendly atmosphere".

European and Palestinian officials said they hoped to process upwards of 400 people a day. Though that meant an extra wait for some of 2,000 Palestinians who packed the terminal grounds, most travellers there were all smiles.

During years of Israeli occupation, passengers would have to queue for hours as Israeli security personnel searched their belongings and questioned them.

Now many passed through in a matter of minutes.

"It moved like lightning. The procedure is so easy, This is the first time I have travelled in freedom and without fear," said Ibrahim An-Nahal, a physician from Rafah who said Israelis would often take hours to question him or check his passport.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally opened the terminal on Friday by cutting a ribbon and saying: "I think every Palestinian now has his passport ready in his pocket. Let them come to cross at this terminal whenever they want."

The U.S.-brokered agreement on Rafah also outlines a plan to later permit Gazans to travel to the West Bank, occupied by Israel since a 1967 Middle East War, both territories where Palestinians seek a state under a U.S.-backed peace "road map".

Hopes for renewed peace talks have been on hold as Israel heads to an early national election in March, after a crisis fuelled by rightist furore over the removal of Jewish settlements from Gaza, land they see as a crucial part of biblical Israel.

But opinion polls now predict victory for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and indicate he may crush hardline opponents of striking land-for-peace deals with Palestinians.

- REUTERS

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