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23 Jul, 2012 23:00

Egypt lifts 5-year blockade of Gaza, allowing Palestinians free entry

With an Islamist president in power, Egypt has eased longtime visa restrictions on Palestinians traveling from Gaza, ending its longtime assistance in Israel’s siege of the area.

Cairo lifted visa requirements for Gazans under 40 traveling with a family to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing, Palestinian and Egyptian officials said Monday.  "We were officially informed by the Egyptian side of a decision to allow any Palestinian under the age of 40 to travel through Rafah with his family without a visa, starting today," said Maher Abu Sabha, director of borders within Gaza's Hamas-run government.The move by Egypt’s new Islamist government comes despite concerns from security agencies that have long assisted Israel’s 5-year blockade on Gaza, taking a tough line on Palestinian travelers due to fears of Hamas insurgents. Even after Cairo permanently reopened the Rafah crossing in 2011, heavy restrictions were imposed.Under the old rules, Palestinians under 40 had to be escorted by security agents to or from Gaza's border to ensure they spent no time on Egyptian territory. The rather humiliating procedure often meant detention at the border or airport for up to three days.The new measures allow Palestinians to cross through Egypt on their own arrangements, allowing them to stay in the country for up to 72 hours as they do so. According to an unidentified Egyptian official at the Rafah crossing, an existing list of Palestinians barred from entry is currently under review, the MENA news agency reports.An unnamed Palestinian official in Cairo said both sides are negotiating further easing of the restrictions.More than 20,000 Gazans are on a two-month waiting list to exit the territory, Maher Abu Sabha, said.