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Gaza border crossing into Egypt to open
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has his passport stamped Friday at the Rafa crossing.



(CNN) -- A main crossing from southern Gaza into Egypt, closed in September as Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza, is to open Saturday following a U.S.-brokered deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took a few steps into Egypt on Friday, the first time a Palestinian crossed that international border while it was under Palestinian control.

"The opening of this border is important," he said at the ceremony that marked the reopening of the Rafa crossing. "It means the Gaza Strip will not be a big prison."

While control of the crossing is being transferred to the Palestinians, dozens of monitors from the European Union will remain for at least 12 months and will have the final word in any dispute about who and what is allowed in and out of the territory.

The border will be open only four hours a day at first, but officials say it eventually will operate 24 hours a day.

Some Palestinians are looking forward to traveling across the border. Among them was Bassma Ismail, who wants to go to Jordan for medical treatment.

"It's a little bit of freedom," he said Friday.

On Thursday, Abbas met with European Union diplomats who will monitor the operation. The reopening means that Palestinians will have control over their own border for the first time in nearly 40 years.

"It's an historic moment," said Mark Otte, EU Middle East envoy. "For the first time, the Palestinians will be in control of their borders. We consider that extremely important because not only will it signify for the people a huge change in their lives to travel freely, it's freedom. It's opening."

Also, Otte said, "managing a border is an essential attribute of a state" and he hopes the historic move will "open the door" for Palestinians and their future in the territory.

The deal was announced earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was on a trip to the region to mark the 10th anniversary of the slaying of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. She oversaw all-night negotiations on the topic, staying a day later than scheduled to encourage talks. (Full story)

Palestinians have said that relaxing Israel's border restrictions would help the region's ailing economy after the pullout of Israeli forces and Jewish settlers in September, while Israel wanted measures in place to protect against terrorism.

Under the agreement, Palestinians will have security forces present on their side of the border, and residents will be allowed to enter Israel without undergoing checks by Israeli security. However, Israelis will watch from a few kilometers away via closed-circuit television.

Any disputes between the two sides will be mediated by the EU. If Israelis, for instance, believe weapons are being smuggled across the border, they would protest to the EU. If the EU believes the Israelis have a case, the border will be closed.

The deal also includes construction of a Gaza seaport, and will allow Palestinians to travel between the West Bank and Gaza in bus convoys through Israel, Rice said earlier this month.

The border was closed as Israeli troops and settlers withdrew from Gaza after decades of occupation. Since the historic pullout, the ease of movement for people and goods in and out of Gaza has presented a problem.

Palestinians said they could not build a viable economy without freedom of movement. But Israelis pointed out that terrorists frequently used the Rafa crossing to transport bombs and other weapons.

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