The decision to ease the restrictions erected by Israel to isolate and punish Hamas comes a week after a deadly Israeli raid on a flotilla bound for Gaza. The move restores a link to the outside world for at least some of Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians. It also appeared calculated to defuse anger in the Arab and Muslim world over Egypt's role in maintaining the blockade and to show that Egypt, too, is now pressing Israel to open at least its land crossings with Gaza.
“Egypt is the one that broke the blockade,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said. “We are not going to let the occupying power escape from its responsibilities.”
The US, which has called the current border restrictions unsustainable, is among those pressing for changes. Vice president Joe Biden met Monday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. He released a statement afterward saying the US is closely consulting with Egypt and other allies to find new ways to “address the humanitarian, economic, security, and political aspects of the situation in Gaza.”
In another escalation of the tension off Gaza’s shores, Israeli naval forces shot and killed four men wearing wet suits off the coast on Monday. The militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades said the men were members of its marine unit training for a mission. Egypt was not exactly a reluctant participant in imposing the blockade. Like Israel, Egypt watched with concern as Hamas took over control of Gaza from their rivals in the Fatah movement of Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.
Palestinian Wafa al-Dahshan (C), who was detained while aboard a Gaza-bound ship and deported by Israel to Turkey, is hugged by her relative upon her arrival at Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip.
Egypt, which had its own war against Islamic radicals in the 1990s, fears sharing a border with a territory controlled by Islamic militants who have the backing of rising regional rival Iran. Just to the south, Egypt’s Sinai peninsula has been the scene of major terrorist attacks against tourist hotels, the last one in 2006.
Egypt paid a price for its part in the blockade, including protests at home against the government of Mubarak, who has been accused of being “an agent” for Israel. And in January 2008, Hamas blew up a section of the Gaza-Egypt border wall in an attempt to end the blockade, allowing hundreds of thousands of Gazans to pour into Egypt to stock up on supplies and visit friends and relatives they had not seen for years. It took 12 days for Egyptian forces to restore order and close the border.
In announcing the change in Egypt’s position, a security official acknowledged his country was in a “continuously critical situation,” and he said Israel was wrong to think the closure could pressure Hamas to meet a series of demands, including the release of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit, who has held since 2006.
“Israel still insists that the blockade is a pressure tool. It can release Schalit and force Hamas to stop resistance. ... On the contrary, it becomes more extremist,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Egypt’s new measures constitute an incremental change rather than a radically different approach to the border closure, in part because Egypt does not want to end up bearing sole responsibility for large-scale Gaza aid operations.
For the time being, Egypt is only allowing a restricted group of Gazans to leave the territory, including medical patients, students attending foreign universities and those with residency abroad. In nearly a week, thousands of Gazans have left and 500 tons of medical supplies were trucked in. It has done so before, sporadically and for a period limited to two or three days.
Egypt will not transfer large cargo shipments or construction material because the border crossing is designed primarily for travelers, the security official said. One such convoy, organized by Egypt’s Islamic opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, was stopped Monday before it got close to the border.
And while it eases movement at the crossing in the border town of Rafah, Egypt is intensifying its efforts to stop a thriving smuggling trade through hundreds of tunnels under the border. Those passages have been Gaza’s key economic lifeline but have also been a pathway for weapons.