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Israel reopens Gaza crossing to Palestinian workers

Palestinian workers gather at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip
— Erez (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Israel on Thursday allowed thousands of Palestinian workers to cross from Gaza for the first time in two weeks through the Erez crossing, following violent protests that rocked the blockaded enclave.

The Israeli authorities had initially closed off the transit route, the only gateway for pedestrians from the Gaza Strip, for the Jewish new year holiday on September 15.

After extending the closure citing security reasons amid deadly protests, they announced on Wednesday evening that the crossing would be reopened for workers on Thursday, with thousands seen lining up in the morning.

An AFP correspondent saw crowds of Palestinians waiting at the terminal from the early hours, including many who had spent the night at the complex.

"We learnt at midnight that the Erez crossing would open today, and I have been waiting here since 1:00 in the morning," said Awni Abu Oda, who works in Tel Aviv, the main commercial city of Israel.

Palestinian trade unions said the reopening was a "positive step" for the workers who have far higher earning power in Israel than in the Gaza Strip, where salaries are low and unemployment is rife.

Nearly 6,000 workers crossed through the gateway by 10:00 am (0700 GMT), a Palestinian border officer at the crossing told AFP on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to journalists.

Israel has issued work permits to some 18,500 Gazans, COGAT, the Israeli defence body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, said last week.

COGAT had extended the closure of the crossing after daily demonstrations along the border with Israel left several protesters dead and injured in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

During the clashes the Israeli army often launched drone strikes targeting military posts of the Islamist group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip.

- 'Collective punishment' -

Palestinian workers expressed relief at the reopening of the crossing.

"I'm very happy that the crossing is open. We have nothing to do with this problem," said Ayman al-Rifi, who works at a restaurant in the Israeli coastal city of Jaffa.

"I hope workers stay out of these problems because we suffer if Erez is closed."

Israel had extended the closure of the crossing after daily demonstrations along the border left several protesters dead in clashes with soldiers

Palestinian Trade Unions chief Sami Amis hailed the decision to reopen Erez.

But, he added, "preventing workers from crossing... was a collective punishment as 60 percent of families of workers in the Gaza Strip live below the poverty line."

The Erez crossing is usually closed for workers over the weekend on Friday and Saturday.

While patients seeking medical treatment and foreigners had been allowed to use the Erez crossing, thousands of Palestinian workers from Gaza had been banned from entering Israel.

- Years-long blockade -

The Gaza Strip, home to some 2.3 million Palestinians, had been rocked by violent protests in the past two weeks.

The Gaza Strip, home to some 2.3 million Palestinians, had been rocked by violent protests in the past two weeks

Protesters had resorted to burning tyres, throwing rocks and petrol bombs at Israeli troops, who have responded with tear gas and live bullets.

Since September 13, seven Palestinians have been killed and more than 100 wounded in the violence in Gaza, according to figures from the Hamas-controlled health ministry.

Israel has imposed an air, land and sea blockade on Gaza since Hamas seized the Palestinian territory in 2007.

Armed conflict sporadically erupts between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip.

In May, an exchange of Israeli air strikes and Gaza rocket fire resulted in the deaths of 34 Palestinians and one Israeli.

Overall violence linked to the Israel-Palestinian conflict has surged since early last year.

At least 242 Palestinians and 32 Israelis have been killed in the conflict so far this year itself.