GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel reopened a main crossing with the Gaza Strip on Thursday, allowing thousands of Palestinian laborers to enter the country for the first time since it was sealed last week.
The crossing reopens after weeks of violent protests along Gaza’s frontier with Israel, where demonstrators have thrown explosives and rocks and launched incendiary balloons that sparked fires. The protests have driven up tensions, prompting Israel to launch airstrikes targeting military posts belonging to the militant group Hamas that rules Gaza.
COGAT the Israeli defense body that deals with Palestinian civilian affairs, said late Wednesday that the crossing would reopen and that measures could continue if calm was maintained. Early Thursday, workers thronged the crossing before being let through, with some resting on patches of grass as they waited to cross.
The Erez crossing is the sole pedestrian passageway out of the coastal enclave into Israel for the roughly 18,000 Palestinians from Gaza who work in Israel. The jobs in Israel are in great demand, paying up to 10 times as much as similar jobs in Gaza. Unemployment in the territory, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007, has hovered at close to 50%.
Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas from arming itself. But the closure has choked off Gaza’s economy and made life increasingly difficult for the more than 2 million people who live there.
Israel has begun to grant work permits in recent years to help maintain calm in Gaza. But Israeli officials say the permits are contingent on a quiet security situation. Earlier this month, Israel briefly closed Gaza’s main cargo crossing after saying it had discovered explosives in an outgoing shipment of clothing.
It’s not clear how long the Erez crossing will remain open. A weeklong Jewish holiday begins at sundown Friday and Israel typically closes crossings during holidays.