FOR MANY THE NAME Rafah evokes an image of poverty and despair. It has been called the last city of Gaza, "the place at the end of the world". Once the entry and exit point to Palestine from Egypt, the city suffered tremendous hardship during nearly four decades of Israeli occupation.
It was mainly only aid workers, solidarity volunteers and journalists that ventured to the town. Most Palestinians have never been to Rafah, nor are they likely to go there, it is too far and too isolated and, in any case, most are not allowed to cross the Israeli corridor from the West Bank to get there.
But on 25 November 2005, good news finally came to Rafah and that date will henceforth be marked as the one on which the first modern Palestinian border-crossing was opened. For the first time since 1948 Palestinians finally have a border they man, operate and control, albeit one monitored by European Union personnel, and also watched by the Israelis through real-time closed circuit television cameras.
The crossing will allow the Palestinians of Gaza to open up to the world for the first time in over five decades. Trade, education, tourism and freedom of movement will all benefit from the re-opening of this historic crossing. For the 1.4m Palestinians of Gaza, who cannot travel through Israel, it offers the opportunity to leave the Strip for trade, education and travel; hundreds of thousands are expected to take advantage of the new found freedom. Gaza could become semi-autonomous as an area if given the right prerequisites, which include investment and Israeli cooperation. It is both a welcomed and feared scenario.
West Bankers have warned that cutting off Gaza from the West Bank and Jerusalem is part of an Israeli master plan. They fear the opening of the border between Gaza and Egypt will cut Gaza off from the rest of Palestine. The Israelis have always been very dismissive of Gaza, pointing out that it was "too poor to handle" and that they had no historic or religious ties to it. It was such reasoning, in part, that enabled Ariel Sharon to order the withdrawal of the Israeli army and the forcible exit last summer of some 4,000 to 8,000 settlers who had been determined to maintain their subsidised lifestyles by the Gaza seashore.
West Bankers and Jerusalemites have warned that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was nothing more than a smokescreen to divert attention from the continued annexation of land and the building of the Segregation Wall in and around...