The Rafah crossing is the only official entry point outside Israel into the Gaza Strip, an area slightly more than twice the size of Washington that is home to about 1.5 million Palestinians. Opening it will ease the blockade imposed by Israel — and supported by Egypt — after the Islamist movement Hamas took control of the strip in 2007. Israel fears the move could make it easier for the Iran-backed group to stockpile weapons.
The move comes as President Obama is stepping up pressure on Israel to acknowledge the new realities that the ongoing revolutions in the Middle East may bring. In a speech last week, Obama endorsed a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on Israel’s 1967 boundaries, with mutually agreed upon land swaps.
But during a state visit to Washington this week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu presented uncompromising positions on negotiations for a Palestinian state, dimming already slim hopes for the resumption of peace talks.
A report by Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency said the Rafah crossing is being opened to “end the status of the Palestinian division and achieve national reconciliation,” a reference to Palestinian factions in Gaza and the West Bank.
Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, said in a telephone interview that Egypt linked opening the border to the recent reconciliation pact it brokered between Hamas and Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian faction that administers the West Bank.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby announced a day after the reconciliation deal was struck last month that his country would soon take steps to ease the blockade, describing the nation’s involvement in it as “shameful.” The formal announcement Wednesday set the timing and terms and made clear that the initiative has the backing of the military generals who are serving as the country’s interim rulers until elections later this year.
“This is a very positive step,” Hamad said, adding that it could herald “a new era” in the Gaza Strip.
Egyptians have long supported the idea of a Palestinian state, and many harbor animosity toward Israel, fueled by a succession of Arab-Israeli wars. As Egyptians have continued to take to the streets in recent weeks to call for an array of reforms, Palestinian flags have become increasingly visible in those gatherings.
Earlier this month, hundreds of demonstrators were wounded and dozens were detained after riot police used tear gas and bullets to disperse protesters outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo who were marking the anniversary of the 1948 establishment of Israel.