Palestinians flocked to the Gaza-Egypt border on Wednesday after Cairo said it would indefinitely open the frontier --- a move widely seen as an attempt by the Arab state to deflect criticism of its blockade.

Mirroring an Israeli blockade, Egypt has kept its border with Gaza largely closed since the Hamas Islamist group, an offshoot of the opposition Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, seized the territory in 2007.

"Thank you Egypt and thank you President Hosni Mubarak," said 50-year-old Umm Hashem on a bus at the Rafah terminal, the only Gaza crossing not controlled by Israel.

"Rafah is our lifeline and we hope it will remain open. We hope this is the beginning of the end to our suffering and to this siege," she said.

Hamas officials welcomed the move but questioned its timing. It coincided with international outrage over the deaths of nine people in Israel's interception at sea on Monday of an aid
flotilla bound for Gaza with the aim of breaking the blockade.

"We want Rafah to be open fully and permanently. In the next few days we will see if the opening is for real and permanent or just a reaction to the current situation," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

Palestinians have been relying on a network of tunnels dug under the border with Egypt to skirt the blockade, smuggling in anything from staples to explosives.

"The border will remain open for an unlimited time," an Egyptian source said, adding that there would be no restrictions on Palestinian movement in and out of Egypt nor on the flow of food, medical and humanitarian supplies to the Gaza Strip.

Egypt has also allowed a shipment of electric generators into Gaza, Red Crescent and border officials said on Wednesday, the first time it has let in non-food or medical supplies since Israel's 2008-2009 assault on the strip.

The United Nations and Western powers say the Israeli-led blockade has led to a humanitarian crisis in the territory of 1.5 million Palestinians.

Israel is also under international pressure to ease restrictions to facilitate reconstruction efforts in the Gaza Strip, where it launched the three-week offensive in December 2008 with the declared aim of halting cross-border rocket fire.

Israel denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, noting daily shipments through its border crossings of food and medical supplies. It says the blockade is designed to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas.