The decision by the new Israeli defence minister, Amir Peretz, to open the Karni crossing on Wednesday signals a policy shift directed at easing security restrictions on Palestinians, according to military officials.

The crossing has been closed since April 4 and for a total of 55 days since January, due to terror alerts caused by Karni being a target by militants.

Palestinians rely on the crossing for exports, especially of fruits and vegetables they grow in the hot, coastal area.

They also import other food through Karni, including dairy products and flour.

Increased security

Also on Wednesday, the Hamas interior minister, Said Siam, said that a new security force had begun operating in the Gaza Strip.

Despite being vetoed by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, the force will be made up of 3,000 members drawn from all Palestinian factions and report to the interior ministry.

Siam told a news conference in Gaza City: "The current weakness of the security forces is clear to everyone. There is stealing, kidnapping and killing so there is a  real need for this force."

Siam announced on April 21 that he was creating a new special security force of gunmen from armed factions to assist the work being done by Palestinian police and existing security forces.

The crossing is a major route for
Palestinians to receive food

He also nominated a Gaza-based fighter wanted by Israel, Jamal Abu Samhadana, for a role with the interior ministry to manage security concerns.

Abbas, who, as president, has overall responsibility for security, dismissed the force and the appointment of Abu Samhadana as unconstitutional when they were announced.

More recently, however, officials close to the president have indicated that he would not have a problem with the force if it acted as a volunteer auxiliary to security facilities.

There was no immediate comment on Wednesday's announcement from Abbas, who is in Strasbourg.