SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt - After three years of cooperating in the Israeli blockade of Gaza, Egypt said Monday that it would leave its border with the Palestinian territory open indefinitely for humanitarian aid and restricted travel.
With international pressure building to ease the blockade, an Egyptian security official said that sealing off Hamas-ruled Gaza had only bred more militancy.
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 of activists trying to break the blockade.
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."
Israel has not publicly protested the Egyptian move, but officials declined to comment Monday.
The United States, which has called the current border restrictions unsustainable, is among those pressing for changes. Vice President Biden met Monday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.
Biden said in a statement afterward that the United States was 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 extremist 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, it watched with concern as Hamas wrenched control of Gaza from its rivals in the Fatah movement of Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas during bloody street battles in 2007.
Egypt, which had its own war against Islamic radicals in the 1990s, fears sharing a border with a territory controlled by the Islamic Hamas, which has 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.
Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and the European Union.
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.
In January 2008, Hamas extremists 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 that his country was in a "continuously critical situation," and said Israel was wrong to think the closure could pressure Hamas to meet demands, including the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas has held since 2006.
The official 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 allowing only 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.
Egypt has opened the border before, though sporadically and for a period limited to two or three days.
The security official said Egypt would not transfer large cargo shipments or construction material because the border crossing is designed primarily for travelers. One such convoy, organized by Egypt's Islamic opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, was stopped Monday before it got close to the border.
Even as it eases movement at the crossing in the border town of Rafah, Egypt is intensifying 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.
Egypt late last year began building an underground, metal barrier to seal the smuggling tunnels, and the security official said Egypt hoped to finish that work in the next few months.
"We have a constant security concern," the official said, "because Iran has its aims. Hezbollah has its aims. Hamas has its aspirations and aims, and al-Qaeda could very well be present in Sinai and Gaza."
Hamas welcomed the Egyptian action but said it hoped all Gazans could soon travel freely without restrictions.
The United States asked Israel to investigate the incident in which an American woman lost an eye after Israeli forces shot her with a tear-gas canister during a pro-Palestinian protest in Jerusalem, a U.S. embassy spokesman in Jerusalem said Monday.
Emily Henochowicz, 21, a visual-arts student from Potomac, Md., and a dual Israeli-American citizen, was struck in the face by a canister fired by a police officer at a violent demonstration May 31 against Israel's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.
"We have talked to the Israelis about getting the details on the situation as soon as possible," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Kurt Hoyer.
Henochowicz's family is demanding "a full and transparent" probe by Israel's government and
"certainly, we want an apology," her mother, Shelley Kreitman, 54, said in an interview.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel was fully cooperating with the U.S. request but said an apology would come only if the inquiry shows Israel was at fault.
- Associated Press