- Middle East/North Africa
ISMAILIA — Islamist-led Egypt allowed building materials into Gaza via the Rafah crossing on Saturday for the first time since Hamas seized control of the Palestinian enclave in 2007, an Egyptian border official said.
It was part of a shipment of building materials donated by the Gulf Arab state of Qatar, which has pledged $400 million to finance reconstruction in Gaza. The Islamist group Hamas has run Gaza since driving out its rivals in the Palestinian Authority.
Israel tightened a blockade on the Gaza Strip after Hamas, which refuses to recognise the Jewish state, took power there.
Hamas has been hoping that the rise to power in Egypt of a fellow-Islamist government sympathetic to its cause will lead to a full opening of Rafah to commercial goods. Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi sent his prime minister to Gaza last month to show solidarity during a brief war between Hamas and Israel.
The Rafah border with Egypt is the only Gaza crossing not controlled by Israel, which withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005. Cairo has restricted the use of Rafah crossing to travellers and medical relief, giving rise to extensive smuggling into Gaza through tunnels under the border.
The border official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while the Egyptian authorities had agreed to allow the Qatari-donated material into Gaza, the shipment did not mark the start of the full opening of the crossing sought by Hamas.
An official in Gaza's Hamas government said it was a positive step. "We hope that Egypt will open this crossing permanently for goods so our people can meet their needs," said Ehab al-Ghsain, head of the Hamas government media office.
Palestinians said it was the first time anything other than people and medical supplies had been allowed in since 2006. Six truck loads of building material had crossed on Saturday, with more expected later in the day, the Egyptian official said.
The government of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who was removed from power by a popular uprising nearly two years ago, looked on Hamas with suspicion bordering on outright hostility.
Leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood, which propelled Mursi to the presidency in a June election, had said they backed the idea of opening Rafah to trade. But Mursi has taken no public steps in that direction since taking office.
Cairo has long feared that opening Rafah fully might prompt Israel to close permanently the other crossings with Gaza, which it captured from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war.
Ghsain said: "Rafah had been closed for goods for so many years and we always hoped such a policy would change, without exempting the Israeli occupation from their responsibilities. Israel must end the closure and reopen all crossings with Gaza."