RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Egypt eased travel restrictions for residents of Gaza Saturday, eroding a blockade of the Palestinian territory imposed by Israel to isolate its Islamist Hamas rulers.
Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979 but whose interim military rulers want to improve relations with Palestinians, allowed nearly 300 Gazans to enter its territory at the Rafah crossing in the first hour after it opened.
By the end of the day, 450 travelers had crossed into Egypt. Only 23 were turned back because of Egyptian security concerns, a Palestinian border official said.
The official said 450 was the total number of people able to cross in a day and a half last week.
The Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only door to the outside world not controlled by Israel, will operate six days a week instead of five and will open two hours longer per day.
“I believe this a unique move and positive development,” said Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’s deputy foreign minister.
Israel maintains a tight blockade of the Gaza Strip because Hamas refuses to recognize the Jewish state and calls for its destruction.
Israel allows most commercial goods to be brought into the Gaza Strip through land border crossings but limits the import of construction material it says could be used by Hamas to produce weapons or fortifications. It lets out a small number of Gazans, mainly for medical treatment.
Weapons and consumer goods have been smuggled for years through tunnels that run under the Gaza-Egypt border.
Under Egypt’s new travel guidelines, women, minors and men over 40 no longer require a visa to enter the country, meaning hundreds more passengers will be able to cross every day.
Previously, the terminal could cope with no more than 300 outgoing passengers per day and Hamad said with streamlined coordination he expected the daily numbers to triple.
“We will cooperate with Egyptian brothers to make sure the new arrangements get implemented smoothly and accurately ... We even hope that 1,000 people will be able to cross every day,” Hamad, who oversees work at the crossing, told Reuters.
Palestinians say the Egyptian move marks a new era in relations after the February removal in an uprising of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who helped preserve the blockade and sided with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas’s rival.
Egypt brokered a reconciliation pact between Hamas and Fatah signed earlier this month to end a four-year feud in a move which Palestinians hope will lead to the formation of a unity government and elections within a year.
Nabil Shaath, a senior Fatah official visiting the Gaza Strip, said the easing of travel for Gazans came as a result of the reconciliation deal which “has made the job easier for Cairo ... as now they are dealing with one (Palestinian) entity.”
“We are very happy, it was a brave decision by Egypt to open the crossing and to dismantle the prison imposed by Israel on the people (of Gaza),” he said.
The blockade has compounded poverty in the territory of 1.5 million. It was eased by Israel in the wake of an international outcry a year ago after it killed nine pro-Palestinian Turks in confrontations during a commando raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.
Israel has said it hopes Cairo will not heed Hamas demands to allow commercial goods through the crossing, saying it fears more arms will be smuggled into the territory.
Shaath rejected the fears: “Opening this door does not mean Egypt wants to allow bombs and explosives ... Egypt wants to allow safe passage of individuals who want to conduct their lives.”
Additional reporting by Ahmed El-Shemi in Rafah, Egypt; Editing by David Cowell