Gaza: Egypt 'to open Rafah crossing to Palestinians'

image captionPalestinians protested at the Rafah crossing to mark the anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel

Egypt is to open the Rafah border crossing into Gaza permanently to most Palestinians from Saturday, Egyptian state news agency Mena has said.

Gaza has been under blockade since 2007, when the Islamist Hamas movement took control of the territory.

Under ex-President Hosni Mubarak - ousted in February - Egypt opposed the Hamas administration and helped Israel to enforce the blockade.

Israel says the blockade is needed to stop weapons being smuggled into Gaza.

The Rafah crossing will be opened permanently from 0900 to 2100 every day except Fridays and holidays, beginning Saturday 28 May, Mena said.

"Palestinian women of all ages will be exempted from visas as will men under 18 or over 40," Mena reported.

Rafah is the only crossing into Gaza which bypasses Israel.

The BBC's Jon Leyne, in Cairo, says it is unlikely Israel will welcome the move, although it has been easing its own restrictions on its crossings with Gaza.

Significant shift

The transitional military government said last month that it intended to open the crossing permanently.

Our correspondent says the announcement illustrates the more independent-minded foreign policy likely to be adopted by Egypt's new rulers.

Egypt's co-operation in blockading Gaza was one of the most unpopular policies of former President Mubarak, he adds.

Last year, Israel eased restrictions on goods entering Gaza, but significant shortages in the territory remain.

Mena said the decision to open Rafah was part of efforts "to end the status of the Palestinian division and achieve national reconciliation".

Egypt's post-Mubarak government has already helped broker a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the Fatah faction, which governs the Palestinian West Bank. Israel has condemned the deal.

Under Mr Mubarak, Egypt upheld its unpopular peace treaty with Israel and opposed Hamas in the internal Palestinian power-struggle.

Hundreds of smuggling tunnels run under the Egyptian border with Gaza.

The blockade has been condemned as a form of collective punishment of the population of the Gaza Strip because of the hardships it causes.

In 2010, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the blockade was a clear violation of international humanitarian law.