Travellers on Saturday exchanged embraces and some flashed victory signs, happy to be freer to travel and to be processed by Palestinian police rather than Israeli soldiers who occupied the Gaza Strip for 38 years before they withdrew in September.

"I feel free and happy as a bird with 10 wings," said Jihad Zanoun, 29, the first Palestinian to have his passport stamped at the Rafah terminal formally opened a day earlier. Israel had barred Zanoun from leaving Gaza for three years, citing security concerns.

The movement of travellers started at noon on Saturday, Aljazeera's correspondent Lina al-Ghadhban reported from the Egyptian side of the border.

About 20 European police monitors were on hand with the Palestinian officials under a deal brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to provide a crucial lifeline to Gaza’s people and economy.

Italian Major-General Pietro
Pistolese (C), leads the EU monitors

Some Palestinians had slept at the Rafah terminal for days waiting to cross. A European Union official said 1587 people had crossed the Gaza-Egyptian border at Rafah on Saturday.

Officials had earlier said they hoped to process more than 400 people a day.

Israeli monitoring

Under the deal, Israeli officials will watch the crossing via videolink to a nearby monitoring station in southern Israel, looking out for suspected militants or attempts to smuggle weapons.

Pietro Pistolese, who leads the European Union monitors, said that because the terminal was running smoothly, it would be open for five hours on Sunday, up from four hours on Saturday.

The crossing is to open full time after all 70 European Union inspectors arrive, probably by mid-December.

Pistolese told reporters the terminal would "open a link between the Gaza Strip and other countries", and he hoped it would operate in a "friendly atmosphere".

Smooth passage

A Palestinian waits for his passport
to be checked at Rafah on Saturday

During years of Israeli occupation, passengers would have to queue for hours as Israeli security personnel searched their belongings and questioned them.

On Saturday, many passed through in minutes.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally opened the terminal on Friday by cutting a ribbon and saying: "I think every Palestinian now has his passport ready in his pocket. Let them come to cross at this terminal whenever they want."

The US-brokered agreement outlines a plan to later permit Gazans to travel to the West Bank, occupied by Israel since a 1967 Middle East War.