A Palestinian woman reacts as she is embraced by her son upon her return to Gaza, at Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, yesterday. Reuters
Egypt blocked Palestinians from entering the country from Gaza yesterday after Palestinian Authority (PA) personnel pulled out of the Rafah border crossing and Hamas officers took their place.

The dispute over the border stems from a rift between the Western-backed PA and Hamas Islamists who took control of Gaza more than a decade ago in a brief civil war.

Human rights groups say Rafah has been the sole exit point from Gaza for 95% of its population of 2million. Citing security concerns, Israel maintains tight restrictions on Palestinian movement at its border crossings.

PA employees were sent to Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt in 2017, a move that largely opened up Rafah for two-way traffic, after Egyptian mediation led to a Palestinian reconciliation deal, which has since faltered.

On Sunday, the PA announced its pull-out from Rafah, accusing Hamas of undermining its operations and detaining some of its workers. Since May, the crossing has been operating daily after sporadic openings for many years. On arriving in Gaza, Hani Abu Sharekh said he hoped Egypt would soon resume full operation of the facility to allow passengers out of the coastal enclave.

Hamas said Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the PA and has imposed a series of economic sanctions on Gaza to press the group to cede power, was destroying prospects for unity.

A Palestinian official said Cairo had decided to open the Rafah crossing only to Palestinians returning to Gaza, after the PA personnel withdrew. Egypt’s restriction showed its “disappointment at the faltering of the 2017 reconciliation agreement”.

But an Egyptian official said he did not expect Rafah to be shut completely. “Egypt recognises the importance of the humanitarian situation in Gaza,” he said, adding that his country would abandon its mediation efforts.

Brigadier-General Yehya Hammad, the Hamas-appointed director of the crossing, said his men were ready to operate the passage. After they took up their posts, the body of a Palestinian who had died in Cairo and two women accompanying the coffin were allowed to enter Gaza. The women’s passports were stamped by Hamas officers. A first bus with passengers from Egypt then arrived, with more expected later.

“We hope the Egyptian side will open the crossing permanently,” said Hammad. Reuters