By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Gaza's Hamas rulers said on Wednesday that Egypt was limiting the number of people allowed to enter from Gaza, undermining a move announced last week to ease the blockade of the enclave imposed by Israel.
Cairo expanded the opening hours of the Rafah frontier crossing between Gaza and Egypt on Saturday, eroding the blockade of Gaza that Israel says it needs to prevent Hamas from obtaining arms.
But border officials of Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said the number of travelers who have crossed into Egypt at Rafah since the new procedures were announced had fallen dramatically over the past two days.
They said Egyptian officials had told Hamas on Tuesday that a maximum of 350 Gaza residents would be granted entry each day, dampening Palestinian hopes that passage would be unlimited.
"Following the joy that has swept most of our people, movement at the crossing yesterday and today was disappointing," a Hamas official said.
A senior Egyptian security official who spoke to Reuters denied any such quota had been imposed at Rafah, the only Gaza border crossing not controlled by Israel.
Hamas border officials said 565 Gaza residents had crossed into Egypt at Rafah on Saturday, then 404 on Sunday and 631 on Monday. But the number dropped to 227 on Tuesday and fewer than 100 by late afternoon on Wednesday, they said.
Under the new regulations Egypt announced last Wednesday, Rafah will operate six days a week instead of five and remain open two hours longer per day.
Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979 but whose interim military rulers want to improve ties with the Palestinians, allowed nearly 300 Gazans to enter in the first hour alone after the operating period was extended.
Palestinians have welcomed Egypt's decision to end a visa requirement for women, minors and men over the age of 40 from the Gaza Strip.
But in what Hamas described as a step backward, Egyptian authorities have demanded in advance the names of any travelers between the ages of 18 and 40 and have turned back dozens of people at the border.
The Egyptian security official said Egypt needed time to look into Hamas demands to remove people from a no-entry list.
"We have told them we cannot accept the reinstatement of restrictions," a Hamas official who attended Tuesday's meeting with Egyptian officials told Reuters.
The blockade has prompted frequent international condemnation of Israel.
Israel's top general said on Tuesday -- one year after Israel forcibly stopped a convoy of aid ships from reaching Gaza, killing nine Turks -- that the military would stop a new aid flotilla that pro-Palestinian groups plan to dispatch in late June.
(Additional reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia, Egypt; Editing by Jonathan Lynn)