The Palestinian militant group Hamas has returned control of Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt to the Palestinian Authority (PA), the PA said Wednesday.
The announcement is in line with a unity agreement reached last month between Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, which seized control of the coastal enclave a decade ago.
“Handing over the crossings of the Gaza Strip today is an essential step for the government of reconciliation which improves conditions of life for our people and consolidates unity in all aspects of life,” Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said in a statement.
A handing over ceremony was held at the Rafah crossing into Egypt in the presence of Egyptian and Palestinian officials, according to the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.
A senior Hamas leader, Hassan Yousuf, said in a statement that the militant group had fulfilled its obligations and made possible the handing over of control to the Palestinian government.
The Rafah border – a key crossing point in the south of the Gaza Strip – has been subject to frequent closures by Cairo, as part of a restrictive blockade imposed on Gaza by Egypt and Israel aimed at cutting off Hamas. Israel, the United States and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
However, the closures have also increased the economic hardship in Gaza by limiting shipments of goods in and out of the territory.
Hussein Al Sheikh, Palestinian Minister of Civil Affairs, said Wednesday that the Rafah crossing would re-open within two weeks “to facilitate the travel of citizens and the free movement of goods in and out of the Gaza Strip.”
An Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official told CNN that Cairo does not yet have a schedule to resume operations at the Rafah crossing, citing security issues. The official added that the situation will be assessed and a timetable released in due course.
Israel has said it wants to meet with the PA to discuss how the Israel-Gaza border crossings will operate under the new arrangements. In a statement issued by COGAT, Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Palestinian territories, Israel made it clear it regards Hamas’ continued absence from the border crossings as being of central importance.
There are two Israeli-run border crossings – Beit Hanoun (known in Israel as Erez) in the north of the strip and Kerem Shalom, along the southern Gaza border.
Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, described the handover as a “landmark development” and urged for the “positive momentum” to continue.
“The return of the crossings should facilitate the lifting of the closures, while addressing Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and unlock increased international support for Gaza’s reconstruction, growth, stability and prosperity,” he added.
CNN’s Andrew Carey and Abeer Salman reported from Jerusalem; Lauren Said-Moorhouse wrote from London. Ian Lee contributed to this report from Jerusalem.