- Associated Press - Monday, June 7, 2010

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt | 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.

Keeping that crossing point open long term would ease the blockade imposed by Israel three years ago to isolate and punish Gaza’s Hamas rulers. It also restores a link to the outside the world for some of Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians.

Egypt opened its border with Gaza soon after Israel’s deadly raid on an international flotilla of activists trying to break the blockade a week ago. Israel has not publicly protested the Egyptian move, but officials declined to comment Monday.

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In another escalation of the tension off Gaza’s shores, Israeli naval forces fatally shot four men wearing wet suits off the coast on Monday, and the militant group Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade said they were members of its marine unit training for a mission.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said Monday that the U.S. 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 issued the statement after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik.

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 allowing only a restricted group of Gazans — including medical patients, students attending foreign universities and those with residency abroad — to leave the territory. By keeping the passenger terminal in the border town of Rafah open continually, rather than sporadically, Egypt is helping reduce the backlog of Gazans with the required permits to leave.

Egypt and Israel have maintained the blockade since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. Israel said the blockade is 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 also have not choked 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 the 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 without restrictions.

Hamas tightly controls access to Rafah, and only travelers with the proper permits can reach the terminal.

Israel allows through only basic humanitarian goods and blocks items like cement needed to rebuild war damage, arguing that Hamas could misuse the material. The closure has crushed Gaza’s already fragile economy.

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