Palestinian Mohammed Ahmed holds his father's passport at Egyptian… (Amr Nabil, AP )
Reporting from Rafah, Gaza Strip — Egypt eased border restrictions for residents of the Gaza Strip long bottled up by an Israeli-led blockade of the seaside enclave in another potent sign of the changes shaking the status quo across the Middle East — and pressing Gaza's ruling militant group, Hamas, toward moderation.
A rare mood of optimism reigned Saturday at the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, where hundreds took advantage of new, relaxed rules they hope will mark the end of the blockade imposed after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.
With almost an equal number of journalists on hand, anxious Gazans, many with suitcases and children in tow, made the journey in a convoy of buses.
"It seems things are finally changing for the better," said Zahara Abu Naji, at age 56 preparing to leave Gaza for the first time in her life. She was on her way to visit her husband in Algeria, whom she hasn't seen in a year.
Among the others leaving Saturday were businessmen, a Palestinian American who said he'd been unable to get permission to leave since Christmas, and several medical patients, including an infant requiring emergency surgery.
After four years of rising poverty, international sanctions and conflict, including an Israeli incursion in late 2008 and early 2009, Gazans' spirits have been bolstered by some good news: a pending reconciliation between Hamas and its rival, the West Bank-based Fatah; promises of investment to rebuild Gaza's infrastructure; and signs of economic growth fueled by Israel's move last year to loosen import restrictions on household goods.
But in a place where half the people are still unemployed and 70% need international aid to survive, residents worry that progress could prove to be fleeting. They say their futures depend on a power struggle brewing inside Hamas.
Longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, forced from office in February by street protests, had kept the Rafah crossing completely closed, or tightly regulated, since 2007. Israel, which has long accused Hamas of smuggling weapons through the border crossing, urged the military government that replaced Mubarak to keep it tightly controlled.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom last week called Egypt's move to open it a "grave problem." Egyptian officials have also started reaching out to Israel's archenemy, Iran.
Beginning Saturday, Egyptian officials allowed women, children and men over 40 to enter from Gaza without a visa. No goods are being allowed to pass through the Rafah crossing at this time.
The move was a reward to Hamas for agreeing in Egyptian-brokered talks to form a united Palestinian government, a surprise move by the militant group that reflected the battle in its ranks between ideology and pragmatism.
"We are at a crossroads," said Yahiya Moussa, a high-ranking Hamas lawmaker. "The world is changing and Hamas is changing too."
Now a group that last month fired a rocket that killed an Israeli teenager on a school bus and whose prime minister lamented the killing of Osama bin Laden is debating whether to restrain its behavior and rhetoric in an attempt to reconcile with the more moderate Fatah and get punishing financial sanctions lifted.
Last week, President Obama called upon Hamas, which the United States and Israel label as a terrorist group, to go even further by recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and honoring past peace deals.
Hamas leaders say the group is unlikely to go that far. But Moussa said it may agree to allow the unity government, which is expected to be unveiled in the next month, to formally endorse such terms.
"Why not?" Moussa said, noting that the proposed government would be made up of technocrats with limited authority and a one-year term.
Not everyone in Hamas agrees. In a recent newspaper interview, Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas hard-liner in Gaza, criticized Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal for suggesting that the group would soften its opposition to peace talks and give Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas another year to reach a deal with Israel. Such internal disputes almost never find their way into the press.
It's a sign of the mounting pressure on Hamas, particularly after the uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world. In Syria, where Hamas leaders have been based for years, the Assad regime is looking increasingly unstable, which many say might have pushed Hamas to seek the reconciliation deal.
In Gaza, support for Hamas is plummeting, recent polls show — notably among young people, who have been in the forefront of recent democracy movements around the region.
Three-fourths of Gaza youths ages 18 through 29 support "regime change," according to Palestinian pollster Khalid Shikaki. "Hamas has lost the youth who put them in power," he said. In March, several thousand youths protested in support of reconciliation, briefly clashing with security forces.