CAIRO — Egypt will permanently open its border crossing with the Gaza Strip this weekend, the government announced Wednesday, underscoring how dramatically the uprisings that are roiling the Arab world could reshape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Egypt’s interim military leaders, who had been instrumental in implementing the blockade under orders from then-President Hosni Mubarak, appeared to be responding to an increasingly vocal and empowered constituency that wants Egypt to decisively back the Palestinian cause.
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.
“Egypt has been under significant domestic and regional pressure to open the crossing and change the policy on Gaza,” said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank. “I think there’s been a recognition for a while that the crisis in Gaza had been a ticking bomb on Egypt’s doorstep.”
In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and Mubarak maintained formal ties with Israel during his three decades of rule. That policy came with trade and security dividends, but it became an irritant in the Arab world.
Bowing to Israeli concerns, and hoping to limit interaction between Hamas and Islamists in Egypt who opposed his regime, Mubarak’s government restricted the flow of people and goods through the Rafah crossing for much of the past four years. Until last year, Egypt opened the crossing only for a few days at a time, every several weeks, for a limited number of people, mostly students and people seeking medical care.
After a deadly Israeli raid on a Turkish flotilla carrying humanitarian aid and construction materials to Gaza in May 2010, Mubarak opened the crossing on a daily basis but restricted passage. The flotilla incident drew renewed international attention to the closure of the Israeli and Egyptian borders with Gaza, compelling Israel to ease its blockade.
Since the Egyptian revolution that ousted Mubarak in February, no more than 300 Palestinians a day were allowed to cross into Egypt from Gaza. Now that limit will be lifted, officials said, and other restrictions will be eased. The border will reopen Saturday, when old rules allowing Palestinians with passports to cross into Egypt between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. on business days will kick in again, the MENA report said.
The Obama administration played down the significance of the full reopening of the crossing.
“The United States supports efforts to meet the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people in Gaza,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “Efforts should also ensure that the transfer of weapons or other materiel and financial support for terrorism is blocked.”
But Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States who is a dean at the American University in Cairo, said the shift is long overdue.
“The decision is a correction of an immoral and ineffective policy of the past,” he said late Wednesday. “It reflects a posture that Egypt will pursue policies in line with those of everyone else in the Middle East.”
Israel keeps its Gaza crossings mostly closed to Palestinian passage, except for a limited number of people with permits to cross for medical treatment at Israeli hospitals or for business purposes.
Despite Israeli and Egyptian efforts to prevent weapons smuggling, Hamas has used tunnels along the Egyptian border to get weapons into Gaza. Israel has warned that fully reopening the Rafah crossing could allow Hamas to build up its arsenal, and on Wednesday, an Israeli official urged Egypt to continue blocking arms shipments to Hamas.
“Israel has no problem with civilian goods getting into the Gaza Strip,” said the official, who would discuss Israel’s position only on the condition of anonymity. “Our focus is on preventing Hamas from building up its very deadly terrorist military machine.”
Greenberg reported from Jerusalem. Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.