GAZA Egypt will open its border with the Gaza Strip to let Palestinians cross, officials said on Tuesday, following a storm of international criticism of Israel's bloody enforcement at sea of its blockade on the enclave.
The decision, urged by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas against whom the embargo has been directed, prompted dozens of people to race to the crossing point in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, although the gates remained closed.
Officials in Egypt and Gaza said the crossing would open on Wednesday until further notice -- a step seen as an attempt by Cairo to deflect criticism of its role in imposing the blockade.
Rafah is the only point on Gaza's borders not controlled by Israel. Cairo, coordinating with Israel, has opened it only sparingly since Hamas seized control of Gaza three years ago.
A permanent opening of the crossing, which runs across a stretch of desert frontier riddled by hundreds of smuggling tunnels, would be a major boost for Hamas and a blow to efforts by Israel and its Western allies to cripple the Islamists.
However, a full, permanent opening is seen as unlikely.
Cairo fears such a move would allow Israel to wash its hands of any responsibility for the territory, which the Jewish state captured from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war and which the Palestinians want to become part of their future state.
Cairo, which made peace with Israel in 1979, also has strained relations with Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Egypt's biggest opposition group.
The Interior Ministry run by Hamas since it seized control of Gaza from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007 said in a statement: "Rafah crossing is open every day from 9 a.m. (0600 GMT) to 7 p.m."
An Egyptian security source told Reuters: "Egypt opened its border with the Gaza Strip on Tuesday to allow humanitarian and medical aid to enter the Strip.
"The border will remain open for an unlimited time," the source said, letting Palestinians enter and leave Egypt.
Aid convoys, to which Egypt has in the past given limited access, would be able to use the crossing, subject to following Cairo's limitation that only food and medical supplies go in.
"Hard materials" -- apparently including concrete and steel which Gazans want to repair damage from an Israeli offensive last year -- would have to go via Israel, the Egyptian source said.
Israel has made clear since it halted a Turkish-backed, Gaza-bound aid convoy at sea on Monday that it will not ease its embargo.
The deaths of nine activists when commandos stormed a Turkish ship in international waters have unleashed a widespread furor over Israel's move. United Nations officials have demanded an end to the blockade, which has impoverished the 1.5 million people of the Gaza Strip. Israel's main ally the United States has been more cautious in its response to the incident.
After Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, the European Union placed monitors at the Rafah crossing to reassure Israel that weapons would not reach Gaza from Egypt. That system of surveillance collapsed, and the blockade was tightened, when Hamas seized full control of Gaza in 2007.
Earlier on Tuesday, Hamas's Syrian-based leader Khaled Meshaal said: "We call on our brothers in Egypt to use this historic moment to open Rafah crossing. Egypt is able to do this and that would indeed be a real response to Israel's actions."
(Additional reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Port Said, Edmund Blair in Cairo and Tom Perry in Ramallah; writing by Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich)