David Kirkpatrick
The New York Times
May 25, 2011 - 12:00am

Egypt will permanently open its border with the Gaza Strip on Saturday despite Israeli protests, Egypt’s transitional government confirmed Wednesday, upending the dynamics of regional politics in a bid to shake up the deadlocked peace process and better respond to Egyptian public opinion.

The opening of the border will be the latest geopolitical aftershock of the Egyptian revolution, and it is likely to strengthen the militant group Hamas, while easing life for 1.6 million residents.

The border between Rafah and the Gaza Strip has been officially closed since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. At that time, the Egyptian government under President Hosni Mubarak effectively sealed the border at the same time that Israel imposed its own blockade aimed at weakening Hamas.

Egyptian officials at the time said that they wanted to prevent militants from slipping across the border and to pressure Israel to open its crossing. But the move was always extraordinarily unpopular with the Egyptian public, which distrusts Israel and sympathizes with the Palestinians.

Israeli officials have warned repeatedly that they consider any opening of the border a grave threat to their security, noting that Hamas already succeeded in smuggling a steady supply of weapons even when Egypt had ostensibly sealed the crossing.

But after the revolution that toppled Mr. Mubarak two months ago, Egypt’s newly appointed foreign minister, Nabil el-Araby, made clear that he considered the blockade inhumane and shameful. He almost immediately opened talks with Hamas with an eye to end Egypt’s participation in the blockade and reconcile Hamas with the more moderate Palestinian faction Fatah, which controls the West Bank.

Egypt’s willingness to reopen the border with Gaza may have helped win the trust of its former enemy Hamas in order to broker a Palestinian reconciliation deal that was signed here this month.

Hundreds of Egyptians, emboldened by their revolution, have also rallied in a series of demonstrations here to call for an end to the blockade. A recent demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy led to clashes with security forces that left several wounded and sent nearly 200 to jail. Signs, T-shirts and bumper stickers calling for a new Palestinian “intifada,” or uprising, have proliferated around Cairo.

Although willing to end the blockade, Egyptian officials have also repeatedly restated their commitment to their country’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

It was unclear on Wednesday what goods, if any, would be allowed to pass the border crossing at Rafah, which is built mainly for passenger traffic. The border has already been open intermittently to allow students, medical patients and others to cross.


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