CAIRO: Egypt will open its border with the Gaza Strip "on a daily basis" starting from May 28, the state MENA news agency said on Wednesday, to ease entry restrictions for Palestinians.
The move, which is likely to raise Israel’s objections, suggested a further policy shift since the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak, whose government cooperated with the Jewish state in enforcing a blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and has a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Under Mubarak, Egypt only sporadically opened up the Rafah border crossing for food and medicine, or to let through people, mainly those seeking medical treatment or traveling to study from the area which is home to about 1.5 million Palestinians.
"Egyptian authorities have decided to extend the working hours at the Rafah border crossing starting from 9 am to 5 pm on a daily basis, except for Fridays and official holidays, starting on Saturday, May 28," MENA said.
It said the decision came as "part of Egyptian efforts to end divisions among Palestinians and to finalize their reconciliation."
Hamas welcomed the decision.
"This is an important move for the entry and exit of Palestinian citizens, and we hope it will be developed to enable the Rafah crossing to handle goods in the future," Hamas spokesman Taher Al-Nono told Al Jazeera television.
Egypt brokered a reconciliation deal between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and its Hamas rivals that ended a four-year rift calling for setting up a government of technocrats to prepare for elections within a year.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Menha Bakhoum said Egypt had not consulted any foreign country over the decision, which she said was made before the reconciliation accord was reached.
"This is a sovereign Egyptian decision in the first place," she told Jazeera by telephone.
Asked if European observers, who were based at the Palestinian side of the crossing before it was closed in 2007 when Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from Abbas’s Fatah group, would return, she said: "We don’t know."
She said the Egyptian decision was intended to "ease the suffering of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip."
Israel, which had earlier expressed hope that the clampdown on the Egypt-Gaza border would remain in place, was circumspect about Cairo’s plans.
It has urged Egyptian authorities to prevent Rafah terminal being used as a conduit for weapons or militants.
Israeli officials were not immediately available to comment on Wednesday’s announcement.
MENA said that Egyptian authorities have also decided to allow all Palestinian men over the age of 40 and those under the age of 18 to travel to Egypt from anywhere in the world without a visa. Women of all ages will be exempt from visas, it said.
Students of all ages with letters of acceptance from Egyptian universities will also be allowed to enter Egypt without any restrictions.
But the agency said that thousands of Palestinians trapped in war-torn Libya will continue to be subject to the same regulations that exist now "due to the existing conditions which require them to receive an advanced visa for all age groups."
It gave no further details.