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Thousands of Palestinians cross into Egypt as border breached - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) – Tens of thousands of Gazans on foot, in cars or riding donkey carts poured into Egypt on Wednesday, after Palestinian militants destroyed most of the border wall between the two territories, a dramatic protest against the closure of Gaza imposed last week by Israel and backed by Egypt.

Jubilant Gazans flooded the Egyptian border town of Rafah, buying cigarettes, plastic bottles of fuel, and other items that have become scarce and expensive because of months of severe restrictions of movement in and out of Gaza.

Israel expressed concern that militants and weapons might be entering Gaza amid the chaos, and said responsibility for restoring order lay with Egypt.

Hamas did not take responsibility for knocking the border wall down, but Hamas militants quickly took control of the frontier. Hamas police channeled the crowds through two sections of the border, and inspected some bags, confiscating seven pistols carried by one man returning to Gaza.

Others walked unhindered over the toppled metal plates that once made up the border wall, carrying goats, chickens and crates of Coke. Some brought back televisions and car tires, and one man bought a motorcycle. Vendors sold soft drinks and baked goods to the crowds.

By late morning, Palestinians across Gaza were trying to reach the border, pushing to board buses, piling into the backs of pickup trucks. However, shops in the Egyptian border town of Rafah had sold most of their wares within hours.

Mohammed Abu Ghazel, 29, said he had crossed the border three times since the morning. He bought cigarettes worth 200 shekels ($53, ¤37) in Egypt and sold them for five times that in Gaza, he said. “This can feed my family for a month,” he said. The destruction of the border continued later Wednesday morning. Palestinians driving a Caterpillar bulldozer arrived at a point where the frontier is marked by a low concrete wall topped with barbed wire, tearing down the wall and opening a gap to allow easier access for cars.

Egyptian border guards took no action, suggesting that the Egyptian government finds itself in a bind over how to respond. Egypt has largely kept its border with Gaza closed since the violent Hamas takeover of the territory in June, amid concerns of a spillover of Hamas-style militancy into Egypt.

Gaza’s Hamas rulers have orchestrated daily demonstrations on the Gaza-Egypt border, in an apparent attempt to appeal to Arab public opinion and pressure Egypt to open the passage.

Palestinians have breached the Egypt-Gaza border several times since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005. In the past, Egyptian security forces restored order after hours or days.

The chaotic scenes came on the sixth day of a complete closure of Gaza, imposed by Israel and backed by Egypt, in response to a spike in Gaza rocket attacks on Israeli border towns.

On Tuesday, Israel eased the closure slightly, transferring fuel to restart Gaza’s only power plant, and also sent in some cooking gas, food and medicine. Israel has pledged to continue limited shipments because of concerns that a humanitarian crisis could develop in the already impoverished coastal territory. However, Gazans are still facing critical shortages of electricity, fuel and other supplies. The territory has been largely cut off from the world since June, when Hamas seized power in Gaza by force.

With the latest blockade, Israel is trying to halt rocket fire that has sent residents in Israeli border communities scrambling for shelter several times a day. The rockets have traumatized many area residents and killed 12 Israelis in six years. Rocket fire has persisted despite the closure.

On Wednesday, Israel said Egypt had to act to control the frontier. “Israel has no forces in Gaza or Egypt, and the Egyptians control the border, and therefore it is the responsibility of Egypt to ensure that the border operates properly according to the signed agreements. We expect the Egyptians to solve the problem,” said Arye Mekel, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “Obviously we are worried about the situation. It could potentially allow anybody to enter,” Mekel said.

Before dawn Wednesday, Palestinian gunmen began blowing holes in the border wall running through Rafah, along the Gaza-Egypt border. There were 17 explosions in all, Hamas security officials said. About two-thirds of the 12-kilometer (7-mile) wall was demolished. At first, Hamas and Egyptian security officers prevented people from getting through, but by morning thousands of Gazans had massed at the border and they began letting people cross.

All Egyptian security and police were pulled out from the immediate vicinity of the border, Egyptian security officials said.

Gazan Ibrahim Abu Taha, 45, a father of seven, was in the Egyptian section of Rafah with his two brothers and 700 shekels ($185, ¤128 in his pocket. “We want to buy food, we want to buy rice and sugar, milk and wheat and some cheese,” Abu Taha said in a telephone interview, adding that he would also buy cheap Egyptian cigarettes.

Abu Taha said he could get such basic foods in Gaza, but at three times the cost.

Faced with a crippling Israeli blockade, Hamas appears to be applying pressure on Egypt, which has cooperated with Israel’s sanctions by keeping the Rafah border closed. Scenes of privation in Gaza could force Egypt to ease the border closure, allowing the Hamas regime to relieve its isolation.

Israeli defense officials said they were concerned Hamas could use the opening of the border to bring weapons and ammunition into Gaza. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the defense ministry had issued no official statement.

An off-duty Hamas security officer who identified himself as Abdel Rahman, 29, said no weapons were being smuggled in from Egypt. “You can buy weapons in Gaza, guns and RPGs,” he said, adding that it was easier to find weapons in Gaza than cancer medicine or Coke. This was his first time out of Gaza, Abdel Rahman said. “I can smell the freedom,” he said. “We need no border after today.”

Weapons are generally brought into Gaza through smuggling unnels nder the Gaza-Egypt border. The identity of the gunmen who breached the border was not immediately clear. But in a statement, Hamas expressed support for the move, saying, “Blowing up the border wall with Egypt is a reflection of the … catastrophic situation which the Palestinian people in Gaza are living through due to the blockade.”

Palestinians have breached the Egypt-Gaza border several times since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005. In the past, Egyptian security forces restored order after hours or days.

Over the past few days, pictures of blacked-out Gaza City, children marching mournfully with candles and people lining up at closed bakeries evoked urgent appeals from governments, aid agencies and the U.N. for an end to the closure, though Israel maintained all along that Hamas created an artificial crisis.

The Defense Ministry ruled late Tuesday that 250,000 liters (60,000 gallons) of diesel fuel will be transferred into Gaza daily, but the crossings will remain closed to other goods and people until further notice.

In a clash early Wednesday with Israeli forces near the closed Sufa crossing into Gaza, a Hamas militant was killed, Palestinian officials said. The Israeli military said soldiers exchanged fire with Palestinian militants in the area.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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