CAIRO — The Egyptian government said Wednesday it would permanently open its Rafah border crossing point with Hamas-controlled Gaza, starting Saturday.
The move is sure to rankle Israel, which has long raised concerns about weapons flowing in for Hamas militants through tunnels along Egypt's border. The Rafah crossing has been mostly closed for the past four years as the regime of deposed President Hosni Mubarak helped to enforce Israel's blockade of Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians.
But opening the border point is likely to ease pressure on the military government that rules Egypt, which is facing widespread criticism — and a massive protest rally Friday — for failing to more aggressively break with Mubarak's policies. On Tuesday, in what was widely seen as an effort to undercut Friday's demonstration, the government announced that Mubarak would stand trial for conspiracy in the deaths of protesters who were killed by security forces during the 18-day revolution that led to Mubarak's resignation.
Late Wednesday, in what might have been another effort to discourage participation in Friday's protest, Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf made a lengthy televised address touching on a wide variety of pressing Egyptian problems such as sectarian violence and the grim economy. But he made no mention of the Rafah opening or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
There was no immediate comment from Palestinian or Israeli officials.
According to the state-owned news agency MENA, the Rafah crossing will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Fridays, the holy day for Muslims, and national holidays.
The Rafah opening is yet another signal that Israel's relationship with Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, may be entering a chilly era. It comes at a time that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been emphasizing his concern about Israel's border security.
During a trip to Washington this week, Netanyahu criticized President Barack Obama over Obama's suggestion that Israel's borders before the Six-Day War in 1967 should be the starting point for discussion of a peace agreement with the Palestinians that would lead the establishment of a Palestinian state. Obama called for Israel and Palestinian negotiators to agree on how to adjust those borders with "mutually agreed" land swaps. Netanyahu called the 1967 borders, which were drawn in 1949, indefensible.
Last month, Egypt broke with Mubarak policy by mediating an agreement for a unity government between Fatah, the Palestinian faction that rules the West Bank, and Hamas, which governs Gaza. Israel denounced the accord, calling Hamas a terrorist organization.
The Arab Spring revolts have led to a burst of solidarity with the Palestinians, especially in Egypt, where thousands of protesters regularly demonstrate outside the Israeli embassy. Hundreds of protesters have been wounded in clashes with Egyptian security forces.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.