RAFAH, Egypt, (AP) – Egyptian forces left their breached border with the Gaza Strip open for a fifth day Sunday but tightened a security cordon around the border town of Rafah to keep Palestinians inside Egypt confined to a small zone.
Thousands of Palestinians continued to wander through the Egyptian side of the divided town, though most stores remained closed along the muddy streets and the few gas stations were long ago stripped of their petrol stocks.
Egyptian border guards and riot police stepped up at checkpoints to prevent Palestinians from leaving the town, stopping all cars, checking identification cards and sending men into surrounding fields to prevent people from bypassing their blockade as had been happening over the past few days.
Leaders in the region, meanwhile, are scrambling to figure out what to do about Wednesday’s dramatic opening of the border and the flood of Palestinians out of their besieged territory to buy food, fuel and consumer products.
The breach has boosted the popularity of Hamas, the militant group which controls Gaza and can claim it successfully broke through the closure that has deprived the coastal territory of normal trade and commerce.
Arab foreign ministers were to meet Sunday in Cairo to discuss the matter, which also was expected to be the centerpiece of talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit on Saturday indicated that the government’s patience with the situation was running thin following the wounding over the weekend of some three dozen members of Egyptian security forces and condemned Palestinian “provocations.”
Egyptian border guards are now authorized to return fire if attacked, said a security official speaking on customary condition of anonymity on the Egyptian side of Rafah.
Over the past two days, 38 Egyptian security forces have been wounded — some seriously — after Palestinians hurled stones and shot at them at the border, Egypt’s foreign minister said.
Israel, meanwhile, has expressed growing concern about the possible influx of Palestinian militants into areas of Egypt that border Israel. The Israeli military said Saturday its troops were on heightened alert along the border, and that an Israeli road and tourism sites in the area were temporarily closed.
Abbas will meet Wednesday in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss the crisis, an aide for the Fatah-aligned Palestinian president said.
Abbas insists he will only talk to Hamas about the situation if it retreats from its violent June takeover of Gaza, something Hamas is unlikely to do.
Abbas, whose administration is based in the West Bank, renewed his offer of deploying his forces at the Gaza crossings, as a way of ending the closure of Gaza by Israel and Egypt.
Egypt has rejected any suggestion of assuming responsibility for crowded, impoverished Gaza — a hot issue in light of comments this week by Israeli officials who said the border breach could relieve Israel of its burdens there.
Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the territory in 2005, but it still controls access to Gaza, including Gaza’s airspace and coastline. Israel also provides the fuel needed to run Gaza’s only power plant. It has recently withheld that fuel, causing severe power outages.