Egypt intends to reopen Gaza crossing

Egypt plans to reopen a border crossing with the Gaza Strip as soon as possible, a spokeswoman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said Friday, worrying Israel and bringing an end to a blockade of the territory that had been deeply unpopular inside Egypt.

“We have an intention to open it permanently for humanitarian reasons,” said Ambassador Menha Bakhoum, a ministry spokeswoman.

Access to Gaza from Egypt had been severely restricted at Israel’s request after the Islamic movement Hamas took control of the territory in 2007. Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and Israel imposed a blockade on the territory because officials said they were concerned about weapons and explosives being transported across the border.

Bakhoum said that Egypt would spend the next week or two studying the issue but added that officials hoped to open it “as quickly as possible.” A cheering crowd of about 50 Egyptians waving Palestinian flags march­ed Friday night toward the Foreign Ministry building in Cairo.

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had pursued close ties with Israel during his 30-year rule, a course that was deeply unpopular with many in Egypt. But since Mubarak stepped down in mid-February, Egypt has been pursuing a new foreign policy path, intent on regaining its role as a regional power broker.

Egypt has moved in recent days to bolster its relationship with Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned in Egypt during Mubarak’s reign. The change reflected popular sentiment and helped Egyptian diplomats broker a deal this week between Fatah and Hamas that will unify the two main factions in the Palestinian territories. Egyptian diplomats have also announced their intention to increase ties with Iran.

Israeli diplomats have said privately that they are worried about Egyptian policy changes, though they did not comment publicly on the announcement Friday.

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a statement saying that “the U.S. supports efforts to meet the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people in Gaza. Efforts should also ensure that the transfer of weapons or other materiel and financial support for terrorism is blocked.”

Western diplomats have expressed concern over the past few weeks about the security situation in the Sinai region of Egypt that borders the Gaza Strip, with one calling it the “Wild West on steroids.” An explosion at a natural gas pipeline there earlier this week led Egypt to cut gas transmission to Israel and Jordan.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.

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