Palestinians on Friday officially took control of their only international border, opening the Rafah crossing that straddles the Gaza strip border with Egypt. Agreement to reopen the border came after intervention recently by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas symbolically opened the Rafah crossing by having his passport stamped at the newly refurbished terminal that will effectively serve as the Palestinians' only international border crossing.
In a speech to a gathering of top Palestinian officials and international diplomats, Mr. Abbas hailed the border opening as breakthrough for Palestinian self-determination.
"After today no one will see our going and coming and treat us with insults and abuse," said Mahmoud Abbas. "After today we will never see the queues standing for weeks and even for months at the gate of this crossing point."
The Rafah crossing into Egypt was closed after Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in September and chaos erupted at the border, with thousands of Palestinians seeking to cross into Egypt. It remained closed, at Israeli insistence, until U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brokered an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians to reopen the border, by having European Union monitors stationed there. No Israelis will be present at Rafah, but security cameras will be placed there, and a joint team of Israelis and Palestinians will monitor the border in real time, at a nearby checkpoint. Mark Otte, the European Union envoy to the Middle East says the EU monitors will take a hands-on approach.
"Our monitors are here to verify that the agreement reached between the Israelis and Palestinians is properly implemented," said Mark Otte. "There are a number of procedures and protocols for immigration and customs that have been agreed to. We have been given this agreement and our people are professionals from immigration police and customs to make sure these protocols are implemented."
Mr. Otte made no comment on Friday about the details of a draft European Union report which was leaked to the New York Times newspaper that is highly critical of Israeli actions in East Jerusalem. Israel has occupied the eastern part of the city since capturing it in the 1967 Six-Day War.
The draft report accused Israeli officials of "reducing the possibility of reaching a final status agreement on Jerusalem that Palestinians could accept. The draft says Israel's policy of building settlements and a security barrier around Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem was effectively sealing off the city's 230,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.
A spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry called the draft document "one-sided" saying "it would a pity if the European Union returned to its one-sided position of the past." A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority welcomed the report, calling it a reminder of the "facts on the ground."
In his remarks on Friday at the Rafah crossing, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged to crack down on Palestinian militants, saying a security sweep had begun in some Palestinian areas. Mr. Abbas also pledged not to delay Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for January 25. Mr. Abbas's Fatah Party held primaries in some Palestinian areas on Friday, but polling was closed in some parts of the West Bank, a sign, observers say, of internal divisions in the Palestinian territories, where the Islamic militant group Hamas is expected to pose a strong challenge to Mr. Abbas's Fatah Party in the January vote.