Egypt’s measures up to now constitute an incremental change rather than a radically different approach to the border closure. It appeared aimed, in part, at defusing some of the anger in the Arab and Muslim world over Egypt’s role in maintaining the blockade.
For the time being, Egypt is only allowing a very restricted group of Gazans to leave the territory, including medical patients, students attending foreign universities and those with residency abroad. In keeping the passenger terminal in the border town of Rafah open continually, rather than sporadically as before, Egypt is helping reduce the backlog of Gazans with the required permits waiting to get out.
Egypt and Israel have maintained the blockade since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, with Israel describing it as an essential measure to stop weapons from reaching Hamas militants, who have hit southern Israel with rockets and in past years killed hundreds in suicide bombings.
The Egyptian security official said, however, that the closure has failed to achieve its goals, including the release of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas since 2006. Israeli airstrikes and Egyptian security efforts have also yet to choke off a bustling smuggling trade that uses hundreds of tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border, though the official said Egypt is determined to shut them down.
Under the restrictions at the Rafah crossing point, Egypt is letting in some humanitarian aid but will not transfer large cargo shipments or construction material because the terminal is designed primarily as a crossing for travelers, said the Egyptian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Hamas welcomed the Egyptian move 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.