Militants down Gaza border wall

Palestinians flood into Egypt for buying spree after breach

January 24, 2008|By New York Times News Service

RAFAH, Egypt -- Tens of thousands of Palestinians streamed into Egypt yesterday after Hamas militants blew up parts of the fence dividing Egypt from the Gaza Strip, forcing an end to the closing of Gaza that had followed Hamas' takeover of the territory last summer.

On foot, bicycle, donkey cart and pickup truck, Gazans crossed the border for a buying spree of medicine, cement, sheep, Coca-Cola, gasoline, soap, cigarettes, satellite dishes and countless other supplies that have been cut off, especially in recent days during a blockade by Israel after rocket attacks from Gaza.

From the breach of the border wall before dawn until well into the evening, Palestinians crossed from Rafah in Gaza to Rafah in Egypt - the city has been divided by the border since 1982, when Egypt accepted the return of Sinai from Israel but declined to take back the Gazan half as well.

While the destruction of the fence was an act of defiance by Hamas against Israel, which wants Gaza isolated, and against Egypt, which sealed the border, officials from both countries suggested that what happened yesterday was not all bad.

"I told them: `Let them come in to eat and buy food, then they go back, as long as they are not carrying weapons,'" President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt told reporters in Cairo. This came after his forces had pushed back protesting women from the Rafah crossing on Tuesday.

For their part, Israeli officials said that, if controlled, the border opening to Egypt might allow Israel to lock the door to a Hamas-run Gaza and let the Egyptians handle the poverty and problems of the 1.5 million people there.

Mubarak urged Hamas to get together with its rival party, Fatah, saying: "If we speak to one Palestinian party we find the other party gets angry. If we ask them to negotiate without preconditions, some of them get angry. There are many problems between them, but I do not want to get into the details."

The prospect of an open border with Egypt was widely accepted as a victory for Hamas and another embarrassment for the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, who leads Fatah and is seen as a partner with Israel and the United States and complicit in the closing of Gaza.

Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, refused in an interview to take responsibility for ordering the Egyptian border opened, but said: "We are creating facts. We have to try to change the situation, and now we await the results."

With the crossings to Israel closed and minimal goods coming in, Zahar said: "Rafah is our only lung. If Rafah remains shut, it means our acceptance to be strangled, our acceptance to die. We warned the Egyptians yesterday that people are hungry and dying." Sometimes, he acknowledged, it is necessary to create a crisis to settle another one.

It was clear that Hamas decided to push the issue with Egypt. Muhammad Mishlahad broke down nearly a half-mile of concrete blocks with his big Effer crane. "I got a call from Hamas at 6 a.m. this morning and they said they had a job for me," Mishlahad said. "They asked me to come and clear the barrier." Asked if he was afraid, he laughed and said: "Why should we be afraid? This is our state."

In Cairo, analysts said that the situation was delicate for the Egyptian authorities. "It is a dilemma for Egypt," said Emad Gad, an analyst at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "If it prevents Palestinian civilians from crossing and confronts them with force, it opens itself up to unlimited public scrutiny at home, and if it lets the Palestinians through they face the risk of not knowing who or what is coming in and criticism from Israel and the United States."

In Rafah, Egypt, relatives from both sides met, as did business partners who usually smuggle goods through tunnels from Egypt to Gaza. For one day at least, and probably longer, no tunnels were necessary, and Egyptian businessmen brought in goods to sell from the more distant town of El Arish. Some enterprising Gazans ordered goods from Cairo in the morning and went across to Rafah to pick them up at noon.

Farid Abu Jabara, who helps to run a Swedish foundation for Gaza's disabled, picked up 50 air mattresses and pumps, which he had ordered from Cairo at 7 a.m.

Muhammad Mowab, 22, bought a cartload of cement for $5.40 a bag, compared with $81 now in Gaza, where Israel has banned importing cement except for specific humanitarian projects. "I've been waiting a year to get married, so I can build a house," he said, then laughed. "Now there are no more excuses."

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