CAIRO — Egypt will permanently open its border crossing with the Gaza Strip this weekend, the government announced Wednesday, suggesting that military leaders are being swayed by growing sentiment here in favor of distancing the country from Israel.
Opening the Rafah crossing, the only official entry point outside Israel into the Palestinian territory, would ease the blockade imposed after the militant group Hamas took control of the strip in 2007.
A report by Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency said the move was being adopted to “end the status of the Palestinian division and achieve national reconciliation.”
The report said the border would reopen Saturday but provided no other details.
Israel warned that fully reopening the crossing could allow Hamas to build up its arsenal and create a dangerous situation. An Israeli government official urged Egypt to continue blocking arms shipments to Hamas.
Bowing to Israeli concerns and worried about a spillover of Islamic militant activity into Egypt, the Egyptian government has kept the Rafah crossing closed or partially closed in the years since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. Until last year, Egypt had opened the crossing periodically for a few days at a time every few weeks for a limited number of people, mostly for medical cases and students.
In the past year, however, the crossing has been opened for limited passage since a deadly Israeli naval raid on a Turkish aid flotilla to Gaza in May 2010 drew attention to the Israeli and Egyptian border closures. Israel was compelled to ease its Gaza blockade under international pressure after the flotilla raid.
Since the Egyptian revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February, no more than 300 Palestinians a day were allowed to leave Gaza. Now that limit will be lifted, and other restrictions will be eased, officials said.
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 between Hamas and Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian faction that administers the West Bank. Now that the pact has been signed, Egypt is following through with its commitment, he said.
Hamad said: “This is a very positive step. We appreciate the efforts from the Egyptian side to facilitate the travel of people. It will have a very good impact on the situation in Gaza. I hope this will be implemented honestly and can be done in such a way that people will feel a new era in the Gaza Strip.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby announced a day after the reconciliation deal last month that his country would soon take steps to “ease the blockade on Gaza,” describing his country’s involvement in it as “shameful.”
Hamad said Wednesday: “The reconciliation agreement encouraged the Egyptians to take more positive steps. They told us before that if there is a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, the situation at the crossing will completely change.”
Israel keeps its crossings to Gaza mostly closed to passage of Palestinians, except for a limited number of people with permits for medical treatment at Israeli hospitals or for business purposes.
Egypt’s interim military leaders have been under pressure to open the border to ease the movement of people, food and humanitarian aid to the strip.
Israel opposes an open border, fearing that Hamas fighters could use it to smuggle in rockets and other weapons for attacks against Israel. Up to now, Hamas has used smuggling tunnels, rather than the border crossing, to bring weapons into Gaza.
Egypt is one of the few Arab states that maintain formal diplomatic ties with Israel, a relationship Mubarak wrestled with during his three decades in power.
The two countries fought a brutal war in 1973 that many Egyptians still remember bitterly.
In recent weeks, Egyptian protesters have demonstrated outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo to protest attacks on the Gaza Strip and Israeli policies.
Hundreds of demonstrators were wounded earlier this month when Egyptian riot police fired tear gas and bullets to disperse demonstrators during a rally to decry the 1948 founding of Israel, a date Palestinians refer to as “nakba,” or catastrophe.
More than 185 demonstrators were detained for alleged vandalism and attacks on police, Egyptian authorities said.
In Israel, a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said: “Israel has no problem with civilian goods getting into the Gaza Strip. Our focus is on preventing Hamas from building up its very deadly terrorist military machine. In the past they have succeeded in building a formidable capability despite Egyptian efforts to prevent that from happening.”
The official warned that if Egypt ceased those efforts, “the situation would be so much more dangerous.” Israel hopes that “Egypt will continue to be steadfast in trying to prevent arms shipments to Hamas,” the official said, adding: “We’ve got direct dialogue with the Egyptians on these issues, and we hope that we’ve got a common interest in preventing deadly weapons reaching extremists.”