The Islamic militant group Hamas on Wednesday handed over control of Gaza's border crossings with Israel and Egypt to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, taking the first tangible step toward implementing a reconciliation deal with the rival Fatah movement.
The group's security forces and border control agents, who have controlled the crossings for a decade, were seen pulling away from the sites, which facilitate the movement of cargo and people in and out of Gaza. Representatives of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority quickly took up positions.
"From now on, we have no relationship with crossings and our employees are not present inside them," Mohammed Abu Zaid, the Hamas-appointed director of crossing points, told reporters.
Hamas seized control from the Fatah-led forces of the Palestinian Authority in 2007. But after a decade of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, Hamas' new leadership says the group is no longer interested in governing Gaza. The blockade has hit Gaza's economy hard, with over 40 percent unemployment and chronic power outages.
Under Egyptian mediation, the two rivals last month announced a preliminary reconciliation deal, but many issues remain unresolved. The sides are to meet in Cairo on November 21 to continue talks on two of the thorniest issues: the fate of 40,000 employees hired by the Hamas government and control of Hamas' vast arsenal of rockets, mortars and explosives. Hamas' military wing has said it will not give up its weapons.
Weapons, militants targeted
Still, Wednesday's handover marked an important step forward. Officials hope that the handover will lead to an easing of the blockade. Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group, and Egypt say the blockade was needed to prevent the flow of weapons and militants in and out of Gaza.
"We finished the first phase of the reconciliation with excellence," Hamas' top leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said during a seminar in Gaza City. "We are going to [discuss] big issues."
In Israel, Major General Yoav Mordechai, who heads COGAT, the defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian matters, instructed senior officers to meet with Palestinian Authority representatives to discuss the changes at the border crossings.
"The meeting will define the joint working processes, the Israeli security demands and criteria for the crossings, with an emphasis on having no presence of any Hamas official and anyone on its behalf operating the crossings or be adjacent to them," his office said.
Even so, changes on the ground were quickly visible.
Just outside the Erez crossing at the Israeli border, a large Hamas checkpoint, where people were inspected and interrogated when traveling in and out of Israel, was closed. Hamas officers loaded the furniture and equipment onto pickup trucks that rolled away. Other Hamas workers dismantled trailers used as offices.
Palestinian Authority representatives quickly moved into the area.
At the Kerem Shalom cargo crossing, trucks loaded with construction materials, fruits and consumer goods started trickling into Gaza. Raed Fatouh, a Palestinian Authority official, said tariffs and taxes were now being collected by his government, without additional fees Hamas had imposed.
Millions in revenue
Kerem Shalom has been the prime financial lifeline for Hamas in recent years, generating millions of dollars in revenue each month that it used to pay its employees.
One of the biggest tests will be whether the Palestinians successfully reopen the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, the main gateway for Gaza's 2 million people to travel abroad. Egypt has shuttered the crossing for most of the past 10 years.
At the crossing, huge posters of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hung outside the departure hall, beside a giant Egyptian flag.
Hamas withdrew all of its officers from the crossing, and Palestinian officials and Egyptian intelligence officials stood as the national anthems played.
Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Fatah official, said Rafah would reopen in two weeks. The hope is that a European monitoring team will be posted on the crossing, reviving an internationally backed arrangement approved in 2005. The short-lived deal had EU monitors and Palestinian Authority forces running the crossing. It grants Israel monitoring via security cameras, a move Hamas rejects.
The European Union later issued a statement reiterating "its readiness to provide its full support to the efforts to reunite Gaza and the West Bank under one single and legitimate Palestinian Authority." It said that includes its readiness to redeploy its monitoring team, known as EUBAM, "if requested by the parties and as soon as the conditions allow." It said "contacts with all relevant stakeholders on possible EU contributions are ongoing. "
European officials have been talking to Israeli and Palestinian officials in recent weeks and sent a technical team to Rafah last week.
Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza's al-Azhar University, said the border changes would have no major impact in the short term beyond the reduction of taxes on items entering Gaza.
He said much would depend on Israel, now that Palestinian Authority staff were taking over on the other side.