Egypt's border closing fails

Palestinians bulldoze wall as security forces try to fix original breach

January 26, 2008|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,Chicago Tribune

JERUSALEM -- Egypt tried to close its breached border with the Gaza Strip yesterday, but Hamas militants bulldozed a new opening in a border wall, and riot police failed to stem the flow of thousands of Palestinians into Egyptian territory.

The border breach at Rafah, in defiance of a tightened Israeli blockade imposed on Gaza in response to rocket attacks, is becoming a growing challenge to the Egyptian government. It does not want to be seen as aiding the Israelis in sealing off Gaza, but it also fears a spillover of Islamist influence from the Hamas-ruled territory.

Public opinion in Egypt and across the Arab world is strongly sympathetic to the Palestinians in Gaza, and the scenes of confrontations at the border, broadcast on Arabic satellite channels, have put the Egyptian leadership in an awkward position.

Pressed by the United States and Israel to act, Egypt moved yesterday to reassert control.

After announcing over loudspeakers that the border would close at 3 p.m. local time, lines of Egyptian riot police carrying plastic shields and sticks faced off with crowds, sometimes lashing out at people to push them back. Stones were thrown, and the police responded with water cannon.

A bulldozer carrying black-clad Hamas militants plowed into a concrete border wall, flattening sections of it as gunfire went off and onlookers cheered. Hundreds then surged through the opening, some carrying plastic jugs for fuel, as riot police watched from a short distance away.

An Egyptian border guard was reportedly wounded in the leg by gunfire, and five other police officers by stones.

In other areas along the border, thousands of Gazans pushed past police lines and continued to move into and out of Egypt for the third day, hauling back goods on foot and on donkey carts. Cranes lifted camels, cows and motorcycles into the Gaza Strip, along with crates of supplies. Sheep were heaved over the border wall.

Palestinians have been buying food, cigarettes, medicine, electrical appliances, cement and livestock, replenishing stocks of items whose import has been banned by Israel during months of border closures imposed after Hamas seized control of Gaza in June.

By late afternoon yesterday, the Egyptian riot police were withdrawn from the border, allowing people to move freely again. A United Nations official in Cairo estimated that 700,000 Palestinians, nearly half the population of the Gaza Strip, had crossed the border into Egypt since Hamas militants blasted open a border wall Wednesday.

As it resisted Egyptian attempts to close the border, Hamas said it was ready to work out a permanent border crossing arrangement with Egypt and with the rival Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas.

"We insist and urge our Egyptian brothers that there must be a mechanism to allow the passage of people and goods through the Rafah crossing in a legal and organized manner," said Taher al-Nunu, a Hamas government spokesman.

But it was unclear whether Egypt, which has kept its border with Gaza closed since Hamas seized control of the territory, would be willing to coordinate border arrangements with the militant group, particularly while under strong pressure from the U.S. to reassert control.

"I understand it is a difficult situation for them," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday. "But it is an international border, it needs to be protected, and I believe the Egyptians understand the importance of that."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in an interview published yesterday in the weekly Al-Osboa, called conditions in the Gaza Strip "unacceptable" and urged Israel to "lift its siege" and "solve the problem." In a separate interview, he invited Hamas and Fatah for talks in Cairo to mend their rift.

Israel, which tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip more than a week ago after a surge of rocket attacks by Hamas militants, has said it expects Egypt to restore order on the border, and Israeli officials have expressed concern that arms and militants could move freely across the uncontrolled frontier. The Israeli army said it had raised its level of alert for attacks from Egypt, and a border highway was closed.

In two early-morning air strikes on vehicles in the Rafah area, Israel killed four Hamas militants, Palestinian officials said.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot and killed an 18-year-old Palestinian in the village of Beit Omar during a raid on the homes of assailants who stabbed two students at a nearby Jewish settlement Thursday. The two assailants were killed.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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