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Tensions ease as Israel reopens main Gaza crossing for Palestinian labourers

The opening of the crossing is a sign of de-escalation after two weeks of violent protests along Gaza’s frontier with Israel.

Palestinian workers enter Israel after crossing from Gaza on the Israeli side of Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip in March 2022

Israel has reopened a main crossing with the Gaza Strip, easing tensions and allowing thousands of Palestinian labourers to enter the country for the first time since it was sealed earlier this month.

The opening of the crossing is a sign of de-escalation after two weeks of violent protests along Gaza’s frontier with Israel, where Palestinian demonstrators have thrown explosives and rocks and launched incendiary balloons which have sparked fires in Israeli farmland.

The outbreak of protests came as the Hamas militant group that rules Gaza, cash-strapped as its financial crisis worsens, slashed the salaries of its civil servants by nearly half this month.

Political analysts have described the protests at the separation fence as a bid by Hamas to wring concessions from Israel and the militant group’s financial patron Qatar.

Hamas insists it never called for the protests, though it gave the rallies tacit consent.

In response to the turmoil on the frontier, the Israeli military launched airstrikes targeting Hamas militant posts for several days in a row.

After the Erez crossing reopened, protest organisers said they would suspend the daily rallies.

They vowed to resume protests if Israel does not adhere to commitments made in recent negotiations mediated by Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations.

Hamas officials have demanded Israel does more to stop Gaza’s economic spiral, including by increasing the number of workers’ permits it issues.

Late on Wednesday, the Israeli defence body that deals with Palestinian civil affairs, known as Cogat, confirmed the crossing would reopen — and other economic relief measures would resume — in exchange for calm.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem welcomed the move, saying the closure of the crossing was a form of “collective punishment”.

“It is the right of our people in the Gaza Strip to enter and exit freely,” Mr Qassem added.

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 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, hovers at some 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 two million people who live there.

It is not clear how long the Erez crossing will remain open.

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot begins at sunset on Friday and Israel typically closes crossings during holidays.

Crowds of Jews are expected to visit a contested Jerusalem holy site during the weeklong holiday, raising fears that tensions with Palestinian could soon resurge.

But for now, workers in Gaza who see their Israeli work permits as a lifeline expressed relief that they can return to work.

The days-long crossing closure, said Mohammad al-Kahlout, a labourer waiting to cross into Israel on Thursday, was a “nightmare”.

“It felt like someone was trying to suffocate you,” he said.

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