Egypt has eased restrictions on Palestinians who wish to enter the country from the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing, after a four-year blockade.

The territory's main gateway to the outside world opened sporadically under the regime of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

The Palestinians' neighbour had prevented the vast majority of Gaza's 1.5 million people from being able to travel abroad. Most had to navigate a backlog that forced them to wait months to cross.

rafah

Israel maintains a tight blockade of Gaza because its Hamas leadership refuses to recognize the Jewish state and calls for its destruction. Israel also says its policy helps prevent weapons smuggling.

However, since Mubarak's ouster in February, Egypt's new leadership has vowed to ease the blockade and improve relations with Hamas.

The easing of restrictions at Rafah, starting Saturday, should allow most Gazans to cross freely, although the border will still be closed to trade. Men between 18 and 40 will still need a permit to travel.

In the departure hall at Rafah on Saturday morning, hundreds of Palestinians gathered, some with enormous suitcases, looking like they might never go back.

After two hours of operation, Hatem Awideh, director general of the Hamas border authority in Gaza, said 175 people had crossed. Other reports said twice that number of travellers had been processed.

None was forced to return, a departure from the past when Egypt had rejected passengers found to be on "blacklists."

"Today is a cornerstone for a new era that we hope will pave the road to ending the siege and blockade on Gaza," Awideh said. "We hope this facilitation by our Egyptian brothers will improve travel and will allow everyone to leave Gaza."

More buses crossed Rafah later, dragging blue carts attached to the rear, with luggage piled high. In the terminal, many waited with high hopes.

To accommodate the influx of travellers, Rafah will operate six days a week instead of five and working hours will be extended by two hours a day.

One woman, who gave her name as Aisha, was headed for a long overdue medical checkup in Cairo. She said she underwent surgery for blocked arteries at a Cairo hospital in October, but Egyptian authorities had prevented her from returning for checkups because a distant relative was caught — and killed — operating a smuggling tunnel on the Gaza-Egypt border.

 

With files from The Associated Press