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Egypt eases own Gaza blockade after Israel Freedom Flotilla raid

Egypt partially opened its border with the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, bowing to public fury over the Gaza blockade in the wake of an Israeli raid on the so-called Freedom Flotilla carrying humanitarian aid.

By Correspondent / June 2, 2010

Palestinians carry their luggage to the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday. Egypt eased its blockade of Gaza after Israel's Freedom Flotilla raid bound for the Gaza Strip.

Eyad Baba/AP

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Cairo

Egypt partially opened its border with the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, briefly suspending its participation with Israel’s blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory.

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Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's decision followed Israel's deadly raid on the "Freedom Flotilla" trying to bring aid to Gaza earlier this week, which has stoked outrage across the world, perhaps nowhere more so than in Egypt. The Egyptian government's 1979 peace deal with Israel is deeply unpopular with its citizenry, who are also angry that their government is adding to the burdens of Gazans.

The border opening was mostly about symbolism, with the Mubarak government bending to the pressure to end its participation in the blockade without breaking. More than 100 Palestinians were allowed through the Rafah crossing into Egypt Wednesday and several truckloads of goods were sent into Gaza. But Egypt restricts the types of goods allowed into Gaza and only Palestinians with special permits are allowed to cross – mostly students and those seeking medical treatment.

IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

In the past, Egypt has cracked down hard on protests calling for an open border with Gaza. But Israel’s killing of nine activists during the Monday raid stoked a new fury across the Muslim world and left Egypt in a difficult position. A partial opening at Rafah was what the regime had to do to keep the ire from overflowing, said many Egyptians.

“The Egyptian people are extremely angry about what Israel did,” said Reda Khalil, an engineer. “All of us are upset, and there was no other choice for Egypt but to open the crossing to support our Palestinian brothers.”

He voiced hope that Egypt would leave the border open. “There will be problems if they try to close the border after a few days,” he says.

Complicating Egypt's stance towards Gaza is the fact that it's ruled by Hamas, an Islamist movement closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Egypt's strongest opposition movement. After Hamas swept to power in the 2006 Palestinian elections, the Mubarak regime feared a successful Muslim Brotherhood-style government on its doorstep as an example its own citizens might want to follow, so Gaza's economic isolation also served its own interests.

Not surprisingly, a leading Muslim Brotherhood figure here says the border should stay open. “It is a good escape but it is not enough,” says Essam El Erian, a member of the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau. “I hope that it is the first step in the way of the continuous opening of the border for goods and persons. I think the Egyptian authorities are now under pressure, and if they really want to change the policy it will happen in the next few weeks.”

How long will Rafah stay open?

Egypt has opened the border for brief periods since Israel imposed heavy restrictions on the movement of goods and people from Gaza in 2007, but it's also been moving to tighten up control. An announcement late last year that Egypt would build an underground fence on the border to stop the smuggling tunnels that have become economic lifelines for tens of thousands of Gazans, led to tension and an exchange of fire between Palestinian and Egyptian border guards.

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