After four years, Egypt on Saturday permanently opened the Gaza Strip's main gateway to the outside world Saturday, bringing long-awaited relief to the territory's Palestinian population and a significant achievement for the area's ruling Hamas militant group.

The reopening of the Rafah border crossing eases an Egyptian blockade of Gaza that has prevented the vast majority of the densely populated area's 1.5 million people from being able to travel abroad. The closure, along with an Israeli blockade of its borders with Gaza, has fueled an economic crisis in the territory.

But Saturday's move also raises Israeli fears that militants will be able to move freely in and out of Gaza.

Highlighting those fears, Israel Defense Forces officials said militants from inside Gaza fired a mortar shell into southern Israel overnight.

There were no injuries, and Israel did not respond.

Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007. The closure, which also included tight Israeli restrictions at its cargo crossings with Gaza and a naval blockade, was meant to weaken Hamas, an Islamic militant group that opposes peace with Israel.

But since the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February, Egypt's new leadership has vowed to ease the blockade and improve relations with the Palestinians.

The Rafah border terminal has functioned at limited capacity for months. Travel has been restricted to certain classes of people, such as students, businessmen or medical patients. And the crossing was often subject to closures.

Travel through Israel's passenger crossing with Gaza is extremely rare.

Under the new system, most restrictions are being lifted, and a much larger number of Palestinians are expected to be able to cross each day, easing a backlog that can force people to wait for months.

Some 400 people had gathered at Rafah early Saturday as the first busload of passengers crossed the border. Two Egyptian officers stood guard next to a large Egyptian flag atop the border gate as the vehicle passed through.

Among the first passengers to cross was Ward Labaa, a 27-year-old woman who was leaving Gaza for the first time in her life to seek medical care for a stomach ailment at a Cairo hospital.

More buses crossed Rafah later, dragging blue carts attached to the rear, with luggage piled high.

Salama Baraka, the chief Palestinian officer at the Gaza side of the Rafah terminal, said travel has been limited to about 300 passengers á day.

He said it was unclear how many people would pass through on Saturday, but that officials hoped to get about three days' worth of people, or roughly 900, across.
 

Egypt announced its intention to open the border earlier this week, with Egypt's official Middle East News Agency saying the border crossing would be opened permanently starting Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Fridays and holidays.

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

Egypt's Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby told the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera late last month that the closure of Rafah crossing was about to end, calling the decision to close it a disgusting matter.

Gazans have circumvented the blockade by operating hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the 9-mile Gaza-Egypt border. The tunnels have been used to bring in all manner of products, as well as people. Israel charges Hamas has used the tunnels to import weapons, including rockets that can reach main population centers in Israel's center.

The opening of Rafah will allow the flow of people and goods in and out of Gaza without Israeli permission or supervision, which has not been the case up until now.

Rafah's opening is a violation of an agreement reached in 2005 between the United States, Israel, Egypt, and the European Union, which gives EU monitors access to the crossing. The monitors were to reassure Israel that weapons and militants wouldn't get into Gaza after its pullout from the territory in the fall of 2005.