Gaza border opening set to hurt Egypt-Israel ties

The blockade of Gaza has ruined its once-thriving economy and the policy has been criticised internationally as a failure
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The Independent Online

Egypt will permanently open its border with the besieged Gaza Strip on Saturday, a move that will draw broad public support in the country as interim leaders chart a new course that is less sympathetic towards Israel.

The opening of the border will invite an influx of Palestinians to Egypt, long prevented from leaving the tiny coastal strip by Israeli and Egyptian policies aimed at weakening the militant Islamist group Hamas.

Egypt's ruling generals first indicated that they would open the Rafah crossing last month, distancing themselves from the "shameful" pro-Israel policies of Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in a popular uprising three months ago. Many Egyptians distrust Israel and remain broadly sympathetic to the Palestinians.

But the move has drawn criticism from Israeli politicians, with Homeland Security Minister Matan Vilnai describing the decision to Israeli Radio as "problematic" while Vice-Prime Minister Silvan Shalom warned that it could lead to increased weapons smuggling into Gaza. Israel regards Hamas as a terrorist group.

The border, scheduled to open daily from 9am to 9pm, except Fridays, will allow visa-free access for most Palestinians, although men aged between 18 and 40 must still obtain special permission. The border may not be opened to the passage of goods.

Egypt had allowed intermittent passage to those seeking medical care, students or people with visas for onward travel but the vast majority of Gaza's 1.5 million residents have been unable to leave.

The new policy will still prevent many from leaving, mainly young men and the thousands of Palestinians not properly registered with Israel as living in Gaza. The human-rights group Gisha said that Cairo probably wanted to ensure Israel retains responsibility as the occupying power in Gaza as well as the West Bank, despite withdrawing from there six years ago.

Some of Israel's right-wing lawmakers have previously proposed that Cairo take responsibility for Gaza, dividing it from the West Bank in a proposal vehemently opposed by Palestinians. But the far more significant crossings with Gaza are on the Israeli border. Ever since Israel ramped up its land and naval blockade in 2007 after Hamas seized power, its border crossings have been largely closed to Palestinian passage and allow only limited cargo in and out.

The blockade has ruined Gaza's once-thriving economy, forcing many to turn to a tunnel trade instead, enriching Hamas. Gazans bring in all manner of goods via the tunnels from Egypt, including livestock, cars and weapons.

But Israel's policy has been denounced by the international community as a failure, doing little to weaken Hamas while making ordinary Palestinians suffer. The International Committee of the Red Cross has called it "collective punishment" and David Cameron has described Gaza as a "prison camp".

Hamas welcomed Egypt's decision, hailing it as a "courageous" move. "We hope that it is a step towards the complete lifting of the siege on Gaza," it said. The European Union also supported the move, adding that it was in discussions with Israel, the Palestinians and Egypt about sending advisers back to monitor the border.

To broad dismay in Egypt, Mr Mubarak sealed the border with Gaza in 2007, ostensibly to put pressure on Israel to drop its blockade and prevent militants from entering Egypt. But Mr Mubarak also had a deep distrust of Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt's then-outlawed group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel has watched with alarm the shift in Egyptian official attitudes towards it since Mr Mubarak's forced departure and lobbied European leaders to keep the autocratic ruler in power.