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.
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 recognize 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 that 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," Hamaad, who oversees work at the crossing, told Reuters.
Palestinians have hailed the Egyptian move as a manifestation of a new era in relations after the February removal in a pro-democracy uprising of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who helped preserve the blockade and sided with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas's rival.
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 then be smuggled into the territory and strengthen militants who have used underground tunnels to import weapons.
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 had 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.