Egypt opens Gaza border crossing
Egyptian authorities have temporarily opened the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip, allowing those with permits to cross.
Authorities said that by early afternoon on Sunday around 133 people had crossed from Gaza into Egypt – mostly students with visas for foreign countries, and patients in need urgent of medical care.
Another 25 people crossed the other direction – largely those who live in Egypt with family in Gaza, or Palestinians who had been unable to return home due to the border closures.
Egypt had announced last week it would be opening Rafah – the only border crossing into Gaza not controlled by Israel – from January 3 to 6.
Although opened sporadically, the Rafah border crossing has largely remained shut – as have the Israeli-controlled crossings into Gaza – since Hamas gained full control of the territory through violent Palestinian infighting in June 2007.
The siege of Gaza has been the source of recent protests, planned to coincide with the anniversary of Israel’s 22-day offensive in the Strip.
Hundreds of people rallied in central Tel Aviv on Saturday night, chanting slogans and waving signs calling for “Freedom and Justice in Gaza”.
On the Egyptian side of the border, hundreds of international activists held repeated protests around Cairo this week demanding the authorities permanently reopen the crossing point.
Around 1,300 members of the Gaza Freedom March (GFM) had gathered in Egypt from more than 40 countries to march to Gaza with aid and supplies as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinians there.
However, Egyptian authorities barred the group from crossing the border, citing security reasons, and instead offering to allow 100 members to cross.
Up to 92 delegates did eventually cross into Gaza, meeting with non-governmental organisations and witnessing first-hand the devastation wrought by last year’s war and the continuing siege of the Strip, march organisers told Al Jazeera.
Many of the GFM activists were leaving Cairo on Sunday for their respective countries with a sense of accomplishment, Ann Wright, a co-ordinator for the march, said.
On Friday, the Gaza Freedom March approved the “Cairo Declaration” , a document calling for the end of Israeli occupation and Palestinian self-determination, as well as for “boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to compel Israel to comply with international law”.
Backed by a delegation from South Africa, the document also made repeated reference to Israel as an apartheid state, and made comparison’s to the former South African government.
Wright, a retired US army colonel and diplomat who resigned from the US state department in protest against the Iraq war in 2003, said organisers “want to build on what has occurred by having this march, and expand it so that we can keep the attention on the plight of the people of Gaza”.
“These things are really unprecedented in Egypt I think,” she said. “I don’t think there’s ever been this type of international demonstrations here.”
However, Wright said that to Egypt’s credit, and despite heavy-handed use of force by police at times, the government did allow them to hold demonstrations outside the UN, Israeli, US and French embassies, contrary to what some expected.
Cairo has also come under increasing criticism for reportedly strengthening a wall along the Gaza border, with Palestinians concerned it might affect underground smuggling tunnels used to bring in basic supplies, such as food, but also weapons.
Meanwhile, a long-delayed aid convoy destined for the Gaza Strip is expected to arrive in the coastal territory on Monday.
The Viva Palestina convoy, with 210 lorries full of medicine and other supplies, set out from the UK nearly a month ago.
A ferry carrying the supplies reportedly arrived in the Egyptian port El Arish on the Mediterranean on Sunday after sailing from Latakia in Syria.
On the night of 2 January 2010, an estimated 1,000 Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv to protest the Israeli army’s continued siege of Gaza, one year after Operation Cast Lead. AFP and Al Jazeera were there to cover the event