RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AFP) – Egyptian and Hamas forces sealed off the border between Gaza and Egypt on Sunday after reportedly agreeing to control the frontier, blown open nearly two weeks ago amid an Israeli blockade.
Metal barriers and barbed wire had been strung across all gaps in the breached border at the divided town of Rafah through which hundreds of thousands of people have swarmed since January 23.
“Security forces have starting closing the border,” an Egyptian security source told AFP. “No more Palestinians are being allowed in.”
One gate remained open to allow Palestinians and Egyptians to return home, but otherwise no pedestrians or vehicles were being allowed to cross, AFP correspondents witnessed.
Dozens of armed and helmeted Hamas men wielded batons at a crowd of a few dozen people at the main Salaheddin crossing, yelling and pushing them back further into Gaza.
A handful of angry Palestinians threw stones at Egyptian security forces after the border was closed, an AFP correspondent said. Hamas forces fired in the air but no injuries were reported.
Up to half the Gaza population swarmed into Egypt through the breached border at Rafah, the only door to the outside world that bypasses Israel, after the Jewish state tightened its siege by halting fuel and aid supplies.
“We have started to implement the measure to close the border between Egypt and Gaza,” a spokesman for the Hamas-run interior ministry, Ihad Hussein, told AFP in Gaza.
The closure of “will last until we have a new agreement to open the Rafah crossing,” he said.
Zaki Abu Nasira, a 45-year-old, was despondent that he would be unable to get across to see a doctor in Egypt.
“I am sick, I need to see a doctor in Egypt,” said Abu Nasira, from the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunes. “There is no medicine here, we don’t have the medicine that I need here.”
Nafisa Mahmud was in tears as she returned to Egypt from visiting friends in Gaza, which has become increasingly isolated from the world since Israel pulled out its troops and settlers in 2005 after 38 years of occupation.
“It’s so sad that they closed the border, we are one people and should be able to visit each other without obstacles.”
The move to reseal the border came after senior hardline Hamas leader Mahmud Zahar said the Islamists had agreed with Egypt on restoring order to the chaotic frontier.
“We have concluded an agreement between us and our brothers in Egypt to operate channels at the local level at the crossing and along the border and we will implement it tomorrow after we meet with the (Hamas-run) government,” Zahar told reporters on Saturday after talks in Egypt.
It was unclear what kind of an agreement Egypt had reached with the Palestinians after talks last week with both Hamas and president Mahmud Abbas from the rival Fatah party.
The two rival factions have not had any official contact since the Islamists violently ousted Fatah loyalists from Gaza in June last year after a week of deadly clashes.
An official with the Palestinian Authority told AFP on Saturday that Egypt had not struck a border deal with Hamas but had agreed that “it is the Authority that has to take control of the border”.
Since Gaza militants blew down sections of the border barrier in the early morning hours of January 23, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have swarmed over the frontier, stocking up on fuel, medicines and other supplies.
The border — which has been closed for the most part since June 2006 after Gaza militants seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid — was blasted open after Israel imposed a full-scale lockdown in response to rocket fire.
Amid an international outcry over a humanitarian crisis in Gaza — one of the world’s most densely-populated places where most people depend on foreign aid — Israel eased the blockade the day before the border came down.
But since then, it has only allowed in limited fuel and humanitarian aid into the territory.