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Egypt to reopen Gaza link

Ending the closure of the Rafah crossing puts the new regime at odds with Israel.

CAIRO - Egypt's decision Wednesday to end its blockade of the Gaza Strip by opening the only crossing to the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory this weekend could ease the isolation of 1.4 million Palestinians there. It also puts the new Egyptian regime at odds with Israel, which insists on careful monitoring of people and goods entering Gaza for security reasons.

The Rafah crossing will be open permanently starting Saturday, Egypt's official Middle East News Agency said. That would give Gaza Palestinians their first open border to the world since 2007, when Egypt and Israel shut their crossings after the Islamic extremist group Hamas overran the strip.

During the closure, Egypt sometimes opened its border to allow Palestinians through for special reasons such as education or medical treatment. But with Israel severely restricting Palestinians' movement through its Erez crossing in northern Gaza, residents there were virtual prisoners.

MENA's statement said the old rules would be reinstated, allowing Palestinians with passports to cross into Egypt every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. except Fridays and holidays.

Entry into Gaza was more complicated. Palestinians ran their side of the crossing. European monitors had a role at the crossing, and have been waiting to resume that function. Also, Israel was supposed to have a monitoring role from afar, theoretically to stop weapons and extremists from entering Gaza.

Mohammed Awad, Hamas' minister of foreign affairs, said he "highly appreciates the decision by the Egyptian brothers to ease the process of travel" at Rafah, which he said "reflects the deep relation between us and Egypt."

Under the proposal, women could leave Gaza without restrictions, while men ages 18 to 40 would have to obtain visas for Egypt at the border.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor declined to comment.

Benoit Cusin, a representative of the European observers, said they had not received instructions from Israel or the Palestinians. "We are ready when they are," he said.

The decision reflected a change in Egypt's attitude toward Israel since the February ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak. The military council running Egypt is less concerned about its relations with Israel and has shown more interest in the Palestinians.

Last month, the Egyptian regime brokered a reconciliation between Hamas and its rival, Fatah, which runs the West Bank government under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The two factions had been at odds since the 2007 conflict, when Hamas expelled Fatah forces from Gaza.

MENA said the decision to open the Rafah crossing was part of efforts "to end the status of the Palestinian division and achieve national reconciliation."

Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Polls indicate that many Egyptians would favor canceling the treaty. But that subject is not high on the agenda of Egypt's new rulers, who are concerned with internal crises, including unemployment and weeding out corruption.

Besides trapping more than a million Palestinians in Gaza, the Rafah closure has been largely ineffective.

Gazans have circumvented the blockade by operating hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the nine-mile Gaza-Egypt border. The tunnels have been used to bring in all manner of products, as well as people. Israel contends that Hamas has used the tunnels to import weapons, including rockets that can reach main population areas in Israel's center.

The tunnel industry is a semiofficial Gaza enterprise, with Hamas collecting taxes on goods smuggled in.

Over the last year, the tunnels - and the blockade - have lessened in significance as Israel eased its import restrictions, banning weapons and materials it thinks Hamas could use for military purposes. Israel cut back on the restrictions after a world outcry over its interception of a flotilla heading for Gaza last May, when nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed.