The only crossing between Gaza and Egypt opened on Tuesday for 72 hours, allowing people to leave the Palestinian enclave for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak began.
The reopening of Rafah came as Israel shut the Gaza Strip’s Kerem Shalom commercial crossing into Gaza “until further notice,” in response to a sharp uptick in launches of incendiary balloons.
Gaza residents holding Egyptian passports, foreign passports and patients seeking treatment abroad were to leave through the Rafah crossing point during its three-day opening, the Hamas-run interior ministry in Gaza said.
Some 500 people were scheduled to exit Tuesday, the first time the crossing has allowed departures since March as Hamas, the terror group that controls the Strip, sought to guard against a major virus outbreak in the densely-populated territory with weak health infrastructure.
Rafah was opened for three days in April, but only to allow Gazans stranded abroad to return home.
Hundreds of Gazans had assembled before dawn at a waiting room preparing to exit, AFP reporters said.
Gaza resident Hatem al-Mansi told AFP he needed medical care, but voiced concern about infection risks in Egypt, which has registered 95,000 COVID-19 cases, compared to just 81 in Gaza.
“There is a fear of being infected with COVID-19 in cars or buses in Egypt,” he told AFP. “In Gaza, we don’t have that problem.”
The Gaza Strip was uniquely protected against the coronavirus since access was already tightly controlled before the outbreak.
The enclave has been under Israeli blockade since Hamas came into power in a violent coup that ousted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s rival Fatah faction.
Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent arms from reaching Hamas and other terror groups sworn to Israel’s destruction.
All of the Gaza Strip’s cases occurred in people who were in mandatory quarantine centers set up by Hamas for anyone returning to the territory. There have been no reported cases of community transmission inside Gaza.
But the dire economic conditions and a poor healthcare system, partly caused by the blockade, also made Gaza especially vulnerable to the virus.
Anyone returning from Egypt will be placed in a dedicated quarantine facility for three weeks, said the head of infection control at Gaza’s health ministry, Rami Al-Abadala.
“Every returnee will be given a mask and will be tested upon entry,” he said.
A large contingent of police, doctors and nurses were stationed at Rafah early Tuesday to accommodate the returnees.