The Palestinian Authority retook control of Gaza’s border crossings from Hamas militants Wednesday, a key step in an Egyptian-brokered effort to end a decade-old rift that has hampered the Palestinians’ bid for statehood.
Hamas, an Islamist militant group which had controlled Gaza since 2007, last month handed over most government functions to the Fatah-dominated authority. Under the agreement struck in Cairo the following week, the groups agreed that a consensus government would take full administrative control of the Gaza Strip by Dec. 1 and deploy its forces along its borders, a long-standing demand of Egypt and Israel, by today.
The Palestinian Authority now controls the Rafah transit point with Egypt as well as the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings into Israel, the isolated coastal enclave’s only land outlets to the world. The United Nations hailed the transfer as a “landmark development” that could end Egyptian and Israeli frontier closures that have choked the Gazan economy.
A lingering question mark over the fate of Hamas’ weapons could yet undermine the deal, however. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned against any “bogus” unity bid that would threaten Israel if Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organization, is allowed to keep its guns. Israeli forces on Tuesday destroyed a tunnel that Palestinians had dug beneath a section of the Gaza border, killing at least seven militants.
The mood in Gaza on Wednesday was celebratory, as officials marked a move they said cements the political deal with security measures on the ground. The Palestinian and Egyptian national anthems blared, while posters of Hamas and Fatah leaders adorned walls.
“Today is the first actual and practical step toward ending an internal Palestinian division that lasted for more than 10 years,” Mufid al-Hassayna, minister of housing and construction in the consensus government, told a news conference in Rafah.
Gaza, which sits on the Mediterranean coast and is fenced by heavily patrolled barriers on three sides bordering Israel and Egypt, has been a frequent battleground over the past decade, during which Hamas fought three wars with Israel.