Israeli officials fret over opening of Gaza border

AP News
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Posted: May 26, 2011 1:19 PM
Israeli officials fret over opening of Gaza border

Israeli and American officials on Thursday said they were pressing Egypt to ensure that the opening of its border with Gaza does not enable the Hamas militant group to move weapons and militants into the Palestinian territory.

The diplomatic efforts were underway after Egypt announced it was permanently opening its Rafah border crossing with Gaza. The Rafah terminal, Gaza's main gateway to the outside world, has functioned only at limited capacity, with frequent closures, for the past four years.

Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade of Gaza since Hamas violently seized power four years ago. But since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February, the country's caretaker government has distanced itself from Israel and moved closer to the Palestinians.

Israeli defense officials said that in the chaos that has followed Mubarak's ouster, Egypt has all but halted its efforts to stop weapons smuggling through tunnels along the Gaza border. They fear that the expanded crossings at Rafah will make it even easier to get arms and fighters into the Hamas-controlled territory.

Israel has long insisted on careful monitoring of people and goods entering Gaza for security reasons. Hamas, an Iranian-backed group that rejects peace with Israel, possesses thousands of rockets, missiles and other sophisticated arms.

One Israeli official said the government was discussing the matter Thursday with Egyptian authorities. He declined to elaborate. The Israeli officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a sensitive diplomatic matter.

The White House said Thursday that the U.S. also has questions about how Egypt will ensure that weapons don't make their way into Gaza. Ben Rhodes, a White House aide traveling with President Barack Obama in France, said U.S. officials were reaching out to Egypt for answers to those questions.

The Rafah crossing will be open permanently starting Saturday, Egypt's official Middle East News Agency announced. The crossing has operated sporadically in recent months, allowing some 300 people with special needs, such as students or medical patients, to cross each day.

Officials in Gaza say the new arrangements are expected to increase movement to some 1,000 people a day, reducing a backlog that forces people to wait for weeks, or even months, before they can cross.

Restrictions on who can travel will also be eased, allowing women, children and men over the age of 40 to pass freely. Men between 18 and 40 will still need to apply for visas.

Mohammed Awad, the Hamas minister of foreign affairs, said he "highly appreciates the decision by the Egyptian brothers to ease the process of travel at Rafah terminal. This reflects the deep relation between us and Egypt, and it will contribute to ease the lives of the Palestinians in Gaza."

The decision reflected a change in Egypt's attitude toward Israel since the fall of Mubarak in February.

The military council running the country until parliamentary and presidential elections is less concerned about its relations with Israel and has shown more interest in the Palestinians.

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Julie Pace in Paris and Mark Lavie in Cairo contributed to this report.