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Israel slams Rafah reopening

May 29, 2011 11:52 P.M. (Updated: May 30, 2011 1:06 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israeli ministers on Sunday slammed Egypt's decision to reopen its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, warning that terrorist groups would be able to move weapons and people freely through the crossing.

Israel has warned that reopening the crossing, which Egypt closed to almost all traffic in 2007, would boost Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip and is designated a terror group by Israel, North America and Europe.

"The free movement of people and cargo that will take place is simply going to be used in a more intensive manner to bring in ammunition and military equipment and moreover the free movement of terrorists," Israel's Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau told reporters.

Weapons as well as essential goods are currently brought into Gaza via a network of hundreds of smuggling tunnels, which boomed after Israel imposed its blockade. The largely unregulated trade meant poor-quality foods, goods and materials were sold on the local markets for high prices.

Cairo first announced in April that it planned to reopen the border, after Hamas signed a deal with Fatah, ending a four-year rift.

The closure in 2007 came despite a 2005 agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority under which the European Union agreed to place monitors at the border crossing.

Although Cairo was not a signatory to the accord, Israeli ministers on Sunday accused Egypt of violating the PA-EU deal by reopening the border.

Israel's Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said Egypt's decision to reopen the crossing over Israel's objections showed that the Israel could not rely on other nations to protect its borders. The UN and other rights organizations have called the siege on Gaza illegal.

"This is very strong proof of why it is so important for Israel to guard our borders by ourselves to prevent the infiltration of terrorists and weapons," he said at the beginning of a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

He said the border reopening was also proof that Israel needed to maintain control over the Jordan Valley under any peace agreement with the Palestinians, describing the 2005 border deal as "not worth the paper its written on," although it did not cover the eastern border area where the Jordan Valley edges Jordan.

Landau called the reopening a "very regrettable development."

"Agreements signed have to be respected and I wish to see the entire international community saying very clearly this abrogation of the agreement by Egypt cannot be accepted," he added.

Though Egypt was not party to the 2005 deal, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his foreign minister insisted they were obliged to comply with it.

The accord put Rafah under Egyptian and Palestinian control, with the EU observers taking up their positions at the crossing in November 2005 in a bid to prevent the free passage of weapons or personnel into the enclave.

But, seven months later, their mission was abruptly suspended following the capture by Gaza militants of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, prompting Israel to impose a tight blockade on the territory.

The crossing remained largely closed from June 2006 to June 2010, when Egypt partially opened it in the wake of an Israeli raid on a aid flotilla that was trying to reach Gaza, which killed nine Turkish activists.

For Palestinians in Gaza, Cairo's new policy means they can travel freely for the first time in four years, giving Gazans a gateway to the world.

Among the first to cross on Saturday were two ambulances ferrying patients for treatment in Egypt, as well as a minibus carrying a dozen visitors.

"I've been waiting for this for years," said 25-year-old Samah Ar-Rawagh, one of the first 200 to leave the densely populated Palestinian enclave.

"In the past, I tried twice to cross but was turned back both times," he said, adding that his plan was to get to Turkey

Jamal Nijem, 53, whose wife and daughter live in his spouse's native Egypt, was among hundreds who flocked to the border post, but he was unsure whether he would be allowed to cross.

"I came here three years ago to rejoin my family but my Egyptian residency permit had run out because of frequent closures of the crossing, and the security services barred me from going back," he said.

Aman Mahdi, 21, said she hopes her husband will be able to accompany her to Malaysia for medical treatment.

"I've been trying in vain for four months to travel. I am registered, but there have not been any concrete results due to a lack of coordination with the Egyptian authorities. I hope this time we can finally leave," she said.

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