After three years of cooperating in the Israeli blockade of Gaza, Egypt said Monday that it will 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 sealing off Hamas-ruled Gaza has 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 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 U.S., 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 U.S. 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 militants wrenched control of Gaza from their 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 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 militants 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.
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, because Iran has its aims. Hezbollah has its aims. Hamas has its aspirations and aims, and al-Qaida could very well be present in Sinai and Gaza," the official said.
Egypt's decision to open the border came soon after Israel's deadly raid on an international flotilla of activists trying to break the blockade a week ago. Israel has not publicly protested the Egyptian move, but officials declined to comment Monday.
Iran's Red Crescent Society said Monday it was preparing by the end of the week to send three cargo ships and a plane with humanitarian supplies for Gaza in cooperation with Turkey, whose government unofficially sponsored last week's attempt to break the blockade.
It was not clear if the ships would actually attempt to sail from Iran, in which case Egypt would most likely stop them at the Suez Canal. The Egyptian security official said he feared an Iranian ship heading to Gaza would only complicate efforts to ease the blockade.
In any event, Israel said it would not allow the vessels to dock in Gaza.
Israeli military officials said their navy is ready for all scenarios. Speaking on condition of anonymity according to military rules, they said if armed Iranian forces tried to enter Gaza, they would be repelled by force.
Hamas welcomed the Egyptian border measures but said it hoped all Gazans would soon be able to travel freely without restrictions.
"We have said since the first day that the blockade on Gaza will end, and we can see that on the ground right now. And we voice our hope that all other restrictions will be removed," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.
Hamas tightly controls access to Rafah, and only travelers with the proper permits can reach the terminal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signaled in recent days that he is open to easing the blockade, but cannot allow ships to sail freely into Gaza's port, fearing weapons will reach Hamas militants. Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, said officials are considering various ideas but declined to elaborate.
Israel currently allows through only basic humanitarian goods, but Regev said it is expanding the volume of items getting in and has initiated building projects when there is a third-party guarantor to make sure construction materials do not end up benefiting Hamas.
Associated Press writers Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.