Scores of Palestinian militants who had been stranded in Egypt since Hamas seized Gaza in June returned to the territory on Sunday, witnesses said, signaling possible new accommodation between Cairo and the Islamist group.
Egypt, the architect of Arab rapprochement with Israel, has straddled a diplomatic fence with Hamas, neither shunning it nor accepting its violent removal of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction from the Gaza Strip.
But in what Hamas sources described as a deal between Hamas and Egypt, around 85 militants crossed into Gaza overnight through Rafah, a terminal on the Egyptian border which had been closed for three months after Abbas' monitors were chased out.
The militants, whom witnesses and Hamas sources said included senior Hamas figures, had refused to avail themselves of an alternative return route to Gaza that runs through neighboring Israel for fear of being arrested by the Israelis.
There was no immediate comment from Cairo.
Any softening of Egypt's policy toward Hamas would likely anger Abbas and the United States, which is expected to convene the Palestinian president, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Arab leaders for a peace conference in November.
All parties have spoken of a need to create a Palestinian state incorporating Gaza with the Israeli-occupied West Bank, to which Abbas' authority is now effectively limited.
While Hamas continues to endorse Abbas as president, it has shown no willingness to submit to Fatah nor abandon a long-term vision of destroying the Jewish state. Abbas, with Israeli and Western backing, has sought to isolate Hamas in Gaza.
Hamas sources said that the Popular Resistance Committees, a Gaza-based militant group, took part in talks with Egypt on temporarily reopening Rafah.