SHARM EL-SHEIKH: An Egyptian security official declared the blockade of Gaza a failure Monday and said his country will keep its border with the Palestinian territory open indefinitely.
“We will have to. We will not abandon 1.5 million people,” the official told a small group of reporters on condition of anonymity.
“We opened the border. We won’t close it unless there is a violation. It depends on the behavior of the other side,” he said.
Egypt will keep its border crossing at the town of Rafah open indefinitely but will not allow large cargo or shipments of construction material through because the terminal is designed primarily to be a civilian passage, the official said.
“We have no problem with people going in or out. Things like cement and steel will go through Kerem Shalom.
“Israel does not object to this. They object to the goods going to Hamas,” said the official.
Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement Monday the US is closely consulting with Egypt and other allies to find new ways to “address the humanitarian, economic, security, and political aspects of the situation in Gaza.” He spoke in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for 90 minutes of talks.
Biden’s visit came after a naval operation by US ally Israel on May 31 that killed nine people on an aid ship headed for Gaza and threatened to stall US-brokered proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Turkish-owned boat was part of a six-ship flotilla trying to break the four-year-old blockade Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip. Another aid boat, the Irish-owned Rachel Corrie, was intercepted on Saturday.
A day after the deadly attack, Mubarak ordered the indefinite opening of Egypt’s Rafah border crossing — the only gateway to Gaza that bypasses Israel.
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 the group.
The Egyptian security official said 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 efforts have also not choked off the bustling smuggling trade that makes use of hundreds of tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border.
The security official said a new policy must be found to end the suffering of the Palestinians, while keeping pressure on Hamas.
The official said Israel is now under pressure to at least open all its land crossings with Gaza.
A permanent opening of the Rafah crossing would only come if Hamas and its rivals in the Fatah movement of Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas reconcile and an internationally recognized authority is brought back to Gaza. Hamas took over Gaza by routing Fatah security forces in 2007 street battles, leaving the Palestinians with rival governments and Abbas in control only of the West Bank.
On Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Israel should be "ashamed of itself" for the deadly raid but insisted the proximity talks would not be affected.
He said indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians were "ongoing" and warned suspending them would hamper Palestinian hopes of statehood.
"If anyone speaks of ending these contacts, he is preventing the Palestinians from achieving their aspirations through political action," Aboul Gheit said.
Palestinian president Abbas headed to Turkey on Sunday on his way to Washington for talks with US President Barack Obama on the indirect peace negotiations — talks which he says are already running into trouble.
"We are going through difficult talks with the Israelis. There are lots of obstacles," Abbas told a group of young Palestinians on Friday.
Despite a global outcry over the Israeli commando assault, the White House has refused to explicitly single out Israel for blame.
Biden said Wednesday Israel has the right to protect itself by boarding Gaza-bound ships, but added Washington would continue to press Israel to improve living conditions for the Palestinians.
"I think Israel has an absolute right to deal with its security interest," Biden said on PBS television.
"The one thing we have to do is not forget the plight of these Palestinians there … They’re in bad shape."
The impoverished Gaza Strip has been under a crippling blockade since militants based in the enclave captured a soldier in a deadly cross-border raid in 2006. Israel tightened its grip after the Islamist Hamas movement seized control of Gaza the following year.
Egypt helped enforce the blockade by building an underground barrier to block smuggling tunnels linking Gaza and Egypt, on which Palestinians rely for many basic goods, but which are also used by Hamas to bring in weapons.
Mubarak’s surprise move to open the border has allowed some additional aid into Gaza, but only a restricted category of Palestinians such as those seeking treatment or study abroad are permitted to cross.
Biden said in a statement that the two leaders also discussed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, political situation in Sudan and Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
The US vice president was scheduled to visit Egypt in March, but the trip was cancelled after Mubarak was hospitalized.
His visit to Egypt comes as part of an African tour which will also take him to Kenya and South Africa.
It is Biden’s first Middle East trip since March when Israel announced it plans to build 1,600 new settler homes in mainly Arab east Jerusalem, causing the collapse of US-led efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (C-R) meets with US Vice President Joe Biden (C-L) in the presence of their aides in the Red Sea port of Sharm El-Sheikh on June 7. (AFP Photo/Khaled Desouki)
Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak (R) meets with Jill Biden, wife of the US Vice President Joe Biden, on the sidelines of a meeting between their husbands in Sharm El-Sheikh. (AFP Photo/Khaled Desouki)