World (AP)

Israel reopens the main Gaza crossing for Palestinian laborers and tensions ease | AP News

Israel reopens the main Gaza crossing for Palestinian laborers and tensions ease | AP News

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel reopened a main crossing with the Gaza Strip on Thursday, easing tensions and allowing thousands of Palestinian laborers to enter the country for the first time since it was sealed earlier this month.

The opening of the crossing was 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 that 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 an attempt by Hamas to wring concessions from Israel and the militant group’s financial patron, Qatar.

Hamas insists that 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 organizers announced they would suspend the daily rallies. They vowed to resume protests if Israel did not adhere to commitments made in recent negotiations mediated by Qatar, Egypt and the Untied Nations.

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

Late on Wednesday, the Israeli defense 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.

The spokesperson for Hamas, Hazem Qassem, welcomed the move, saying the closure of the crossing had been a form of “collective punishment.”

“It is the right of our people in the Gaza Strip to enter and exit freely,” 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 2 million people who live there.

It’s not clear how long the Erez crossing would remain open. The Jewish holiday of Sukkot begins at sundown 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 could return to work. The dayslong crossing closure, said Mohammad al-Kahlout, a laborer waiting to cross into Israel on Thursday, was a “nightmare.”

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