|There have been several attempts, some successful, to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip [GALLO/GETTY]
Egypt will permanently open its Rafah border crossing starting from Saturday, the country's official news agency reported, easing a four-year blockade on the Gaza Strip.
The news agency MENA said on Wednesday that Egypt's new military rulers had set the date for the opening of the crossing as part of efforts "to end the status of the Palestinian division and achieve national reconciliation".
It said the Rafah border crossing would be opened permanently, starting on Saturday, from 9am to 9pm every day except Fridays and holidays.
Minha Bakhoum, spokeswoman for the Egyptian foreign ministry, told Al Jazeera that the decision was taken to ease the suffering of Gaza residents.
"This comes in the context of the decision taken by the new Egyptian government to help end the disunity between Palestinian factions, in the absence of any resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," she said.
Siege 'not over'
Mustafa Barghouti, a long time activist and former Palestinian presidential candidate, told Al Jazeera that re-opening the border was a "big step forward".
"Hundreds of people have lost their lives because they could not get medical care in Gaza, thousands of students have lost their studies, and thousands of businesses have suffered," Barghouti said.
"But the siege is not over. Construction material is still forbidden and that means that the 25,000 houses that were destroyed by Israel during the war on Gaza cannot be rebuilt."
"We appreciate the Egyptian initiative - this is one of the big changes after the Egyptian revolution."
Al Jazeera's Nicole Johnston, reporting from Gaza, said there would still be restrictions in place, preventing men younger than 40 from leaving the strip.
"It will allow basically all women to leave Gaza, also children under the age of 18 years will be allowed to leave, as well as men over the age of 40 years. However, those between the ages of 18 and 40 years will require an Egyptian visa," she said.
"Visas would have to come from Ramallah. Sources in Hamas say they have been told by the Egyptian authorities over the last few weeks that they [Egyptians] do intend to open some sort of representative office inside Gaza, so that people can get the visa from there."
Sharp departure from past
The decision is a sharp departure from the policies of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who had restricted the movement of people and goods through the Egyptian-Gaza border.
"One of the military's first and important announcements was to abide by all international agreements that the previous government had committed to," said Ayman Mohyeldin, reporting from Cairo.
One of those agreements commits Egypt to granting access to the crossing to European monitors. Sources told Al Jazeera that European monitors had not been notified that the border would be opening on Saturday.
"Certainly this is going to cause some concerns for Israel, particularly as to what mechanism is going to be put in place," our correspondent said.
Sources at Rafah said it was unlikely that all the mechanisms needed to be put in place could actually be ready in time to deal with the flow of people expected to come out of Gaza.
"There's no doubt if the border is opened freely for all, there's going to be a massive influx of Palestinians, who would want to get out for the first time since the siege was put in place," said Mohyeldin.
Gazans have circumvented the blockade by operating hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the 15km Gaza-Egypt border, which have been used to bring in all manner of products, as well as people.
Israel says Hamas, which controls Gaza, has used the tunnels to import weapons, including rockets that can reach main population centres in Israel.
The crossing has been mostly closed, in line with Israel's blockade on Gaza, imposed since 2007 when Hamas took control of the coastal territory.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies