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By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Egypt has eased restrictions at a tightly-controlled border with the Gaza trip in a sign of improved relations with the Palestinian territory's Islamist rulers.
Truckloads of goods ranging from steel to fish have rolled into the enclave in the past several weeks.
Egypt had insisted for years that the Rafah crossing - which it opens for a three-to-five day period about once every 40 days - would handle the passage of only people, not goods.
Long at odds with Gaza's governing Hamas group, Egypt had destroyed nearly 2,000 smuggling tunnels that provided its two million people with a steady flow of consumer products.
That left Israel's Kerem Shalom border crossing as the only conduit for Gaza imports, although some items are banned and the Israeli navy maintains a maritime blockade.
Last month, however, commercial material moved through the crossing along with travellers on the few days it was operational. Officials and economists listed some 20,000 tonnes of products include cement, wheat, steel, lumber, paint, tar and fish, as having moved from Egypt into Gaza.
The bulk of Egyptian imports for Gaza continues to enter through Israel, where the goods are inspected, and then sent to the territory via Kerem Shalom.
Last year, Cairo began allowing cement into Gaza via Rafah to help rebuild homes damaged or destroyed in four wars between Israel and Palestinian militants since 2006. Cement shipments for projects sponsored by the United Nations already move through the Israeli crossing.
Ashraf Abouelhoul, an Egyptian expert on Palestinian affairs, said recent talks in Cairo between Egyptian officials and a Hamas delegation may have led to the decision to move goods through Rafah.
"Everyone knows Hamas has improved to some extent the security situation along the Gaza border with Egypt and has to some extent hardened control on smuggling tunnels of people and goods," he said.
Mohammad Abu Jayyab, a Gaza economist, said Egypt might have been motivated by hopes that in return for more imports, Hamas would further bolster security along the border with the Sinai peninsula, where Cairo is battling Islamist militants.
Egypt's government has accused Hamas of aiding the Islamic State-linked militant groups in the Sinai and of intervening on behalf of Islamist allies in Egyptian politics. Hamas denies those allegations.
Egyptian officials had no immediate comment on commercial ties with Gaza. Israeli authorities also declined to speak about goods moving through Rafah.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, acknowledged a "crisis of trust" between the group and Egypt in the past.
"Trust has become better and those fears are fading away," he said, citing what he termed a heavier deployment of security forces on the Egyptian frontier by the Hamas-run Interior Ministry.
Palestinian economist Maher al-Tabbaa said the flow of goods would benefit Sinai-based suppliers and improve economic conditions in the Gaza Strip, in a political boost for Hamas.
Israel has eased restrictions on overland passage of goods in recent years but it continues to ban items - such as some building materials and fertiliser - that it says could be used by militants for fortifications and explosives.
Tabbaa estimated material coming into Gaza from Israel meets only 70 percent of people's needs.
"The Gaza Strip is capable of importing goods from Egypt at the cost of $1 billion in 2017 if trade movement improved further," Tabbaa told Reuters.
(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)