A senior Palestinian official on Monday said the Palestinian Authority has reached an agreement with Egypt to reopen the Gaza Strip's main border crossing in an arrangement meant to bypass the territory's Hamas rulers.
Azzam Al-Ahmad, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the deal was reached recently in Cairo. He said it aims to open the Rafah crossing "to the maximum possible" to allow the movement of students, laborers, medical patients and even commercial goods.
Such a deal could bring great relief to Gaza, which has been under an Israeli siege since 2006, and whose only border with Egypt - Rafah - is intermittently opened by the Egyptian government. It could also mark a setback for Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from Abbas in 2007.
However, a top Hamas official gave the plan a cool reception, raising questions about its viability.
The Rafah crossing is Gaza's main gateway to the outside world. Few Gazans are permitted to travel through the Israeli border to the north, though Israeli crossings are used to transfer cargo into Gaza.
Egypt has kept the Rafah crossing virtually sealed since the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, who was a close ally of Hamas. Due to the closure, thousands of Gazans are waiting to travel abroad.
Azzam said the deal would be implemented in stages beginning in the near future, but he gave no further details.
Hamas, an Islamist militant group, remains in full control of Gaza, and the internationally backed Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the occupied West Bank, has no presence there. Repeated attempts to reconcile the rival governments have failed.
With his announcement, Azzam appeared to be trying to put pressure on Hamas to accept the deal. If Hamas doesn't agree, he said, "Hamas will have to answer to the Gazan people."
Palestinians in Gaza, approximately 1.7 million, have endured massive suffering because of the Israeli blockade and three major wars by Tel Aviv that have destroyed thousands of homes and crippled infrastructure over the past nine years.
Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, said the group has not been officially informed of the deal, but indicated it would oppose it. "Any arrangement in Rafah cannot be done without proper coordination," he said.
Egyptian officials could not immediately be reached for comment. But in a statement issued after a Nov. 8 meeting between Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Cairo confirmed the issue had been discussed.
El-Sisi "made it clear that the return of the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip and its assumption of supervision over the crossings, in line with international resolutions, will have a positive impact," it said at the time.
*This story has been edited by Ahram Online