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Egypt Eases Restrictions on Gaza Border Crossings

Palestinians wait at the Egyptian passport administration at Rafah crossing port, May 28, 2011

Palestinians wait at the Egyptian passport administration at Rafah crossing port, May 28, 2011

Egypt has eased restrictions on border crossings for pedestrians from the Gaza Strip. Palestinians see it as a big step toward ending a four-year-old blockade that Israel and Egypt have imposed on the enclave. Palestinians with proper documentation from the Gaza Strip can pass freely into Egypt Sunday after the Egyptian government eased restrictions on its border with Gaza.

A Palestinian border policeman puts a stamp on the passport of Mahmoud al-Hams, a Gaza resident who says he has not left the enclave for years. He is among the first of hundreds who arrived at the Rafah border terminal Saturday before boarding a shuttle bus that would take him past a gate into Egypt.

He says he is very happy that he can finally go out and see the world.

Egypt began easing restrictions on this border crossing earlier this year following the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, opening this crossing sporadically for those with special permits that were granted on the basis of medical and other needs.

Now, the crossing is supposed to have regular hours and be open generally to anyone other than men between the ages of 18 and 40.

Those crossing on Saturday hailed the loosening of restrictions as a relief after years of a closure imposed by Israel and Egypt. Gaza resident Sabri Matar is going to Egypt for medical treatment. He thanks the Egyptians for understanding the suffering of the Palestinians and opening this crossing.

Egypt under Mubarak cooperated with Israel's closure of the Gaza Strip following a violent takeover of Gaza by the militant Islamist group Hamas. The group, considered a terrorist organization by the United States and others, was also viewed as a threat by Mubarak.

Egypt decided to ease restrictions after Hamas recently signed a reconciliation agreement with the rival Fatah faction that runs the West Bank.

Hamas sees the interim government that replaced Mubarak as more sympathetic to the Palestinians' cause, and on Saturday praised Egyptians' decision to loosen restrictions.

Speaking at the border crossing Saturday, Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, called it the start of a new era of freedom for the people of Gaza and of closer cooperation with Egypt.

"The crossing is a fruit [of] the Egyptian revolution and a fruit of the reconciliation. I hope the opening of the crossing will support the reconciliation, first of all, and support the relationship between the Egyptians and the Palestinians,” he said.

Israel is watching events on the border with concern. Israeli officials have warned that Egypt's loosening of restrictions could open the way for terrorists and arms smugglers.

The loosening of the border crossing restrictions applies only to pedestrians. Along with Israel, Egypt continues to restrict the passage of most goods and vehicles into the Gaza Strip.

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