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Egypt eases travel restrictions for Gaza travellers - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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RAFAH, (Reuters) – Egypt eased travel restrictions for residents of Gaza on 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 early afternoon a Palestinian border official said some 450 people had crossed through the Palestinian side of the border, equivalent to the total number of people able to cross in a day and a half last week.

The crossing is due to close at 5 p.m. (14:00 GMT)

Under new regulations Egypt announced on Wednesday, the Rafah crossing, Hamas-controlled Gaza’s only window to the outside world, will operate six days a week instead of five and working hours will be extended by two hours a day.

“I believe this a unique move and positive development,” said Ghazi Hamad, Islamist Hamas’s deputy foreign minister.

Israel maintains a tight blockade of the Gaza Strip because Hamas refuses to recognise the Jewish state and calls for its destruction. Israeli officials have declined to comment on the opening of Gaza’s only free exit point to the world.

Israel allows some goods to be imported into the Gaza Strip through land border crossings and lets out a small number Gazans, mainly for medical treatment.

LOOSER TRAVEL RULES

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 has also 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 severe poverty in Gaza, a tiny densely populated coastal territory of 1.5 million people.

Israel has said it hopes Cairo will not heed Hamas demands to allow commercial goods through the crossing, saying it fears 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.”

Centrist Kadima, Israel’s main opposition party, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inability to persuade Egypt to keep Rafah closed was proof his foreign policies were failing.

“The breaking of the siege without coordination (between Egypt and Israel) and against (Israel’s) wish is a failure of the Netanyahu government, whose weakness in diplomacy and failure to coordinate with foreign states has left Israel isolated,” a Kadima statement said.

The Rafah crossing had operated sporadically since 2007 after Egypt closed it following Hamas’s takeover of Gaza when it ousted forces loyal Abbas’s Fatah faction. Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006 and seized Gaza a year later.

Last year, Mubarak’s Egypt opened the crossing on a regular basis five days a week and allowed mainly students, those needing medical treatment, holders of visas to a third country and dual nationals out of Gaza.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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