RAFAH, Gaza Strip: Egypt has sharply cut the number of Palestinians allowed to enter from the Gaza Strip since its military ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last month, the tiny enclave's Islamist Hamas rulers said on Monday.
An Egyptian official said the curbs were "not a punishment" for Hamas's Islamist leanings but an effort to reduce civilian traffic as Egypt has stepped up military operations against Islamist militants in the Sinai region bordering Gaza.
But the move compounds hardships for largely impoverished Gazans, for whom Egypt is the sole outlet to the wider world due to a blockade of Gaza's other land and sea borders by Israel, which cites security concerns.
Ghazi Hamad, a deputy Hamas foreign minister, said Egypt was now permitting 300 Palestinians to enter daily, compared with 1,200 in the months before Morsi's July 3 ouster after an eruption of mass unrest against his rule.
He cited a reduction in working hours at Rafah crossing, the only border terminal between Egypt and Gaza, to four hours a day, often stranding thousands of travellers at a time.
"Such a policy does not help very much," Hamad told Reuters in an interview. He said the restrictions particularly disrupted business travel and studies of young Gazans enrolled in higher education either in Egypt or in other universities abroad.
At Rafah, hundreds of Palestinians waited several hours in the sweltering desert heat for permits to enter Egypt on Monday.
Nahed Babrakh, 47, standing by his wheelchair-bound daughter whom he was accompanying on a trip to Cairo for medical treatment, said: "We do not know why (the restrictions were imposed). Maybe because (Morsi's) Muslim Brotherhood has gone, everything has changed."
Some travellers napped in the scant spots of shade they could find as restless children chased after each other, weaving their way around piles of luggage in games of tag.
Mohammed Abu El-Fahem, a graduate student in Cairo, said he had been twice denied entry to Egypt since late July and was worried about losing an entire year of academic study if he did not make it to an exam by Sept. 1.
"I totally understand the security needs of Egypt but as a student I would be harmed very much if I cannot get to class," Abu El-Fahem told Reuters.
The Egyptian official, reached in Cairo, blamed the restrictions on "security conditions in Sinai" where Egypt's military has been clashing for weeks with Islamist gunmen attacking security targets.
"We understand the needs of the people of Gaza and therefore are trying our best to allow everyone who needs to travel to do so in accordance to security necessities," the official said.
For Hamas, whose leaders were close to Morsi, his ouster has spelled an end to a spell of easier exit visas for Palestinians. Hamas has controlled Gaza since seizing the territory from Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.
Hamas rejects Israel's existence and objects to Abbas's agreement to renew peace talks with the Jewish state.