Egypt controls crowds from Gaza

Published: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 9:17 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 9:17 a.m.

RAFAH, Egypt Egyptian officials began trying to control the masses of Palestinians flooding from the Gaza Strip Thursday, stopping some from moving deeper into Egypt but not attempting to reseal the breached border.

A top Israeli defense official said that Israel wants to relinquish all responsibility for the Gaza Strip, including the supply of electricity and water, now that the territory's southern border with Egypt has been opened.

It was not immediately clear if Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai spoke for the entire government.

On the Egyptian side of the Gaza border, helmeted riot officers with dogs used batons to beat the hoods of Egyptian cars and trucks offering rides to Palestinians seeking goods in towns out of walking range.

Dozens of Egyptian guards pushed their way through the crowds but did nothing to halt the thousands of Palestinians moving over the wreckage of a metal wall brought down by explosives a day earlier.

U.S. and Arab officials said Wednesday that Egypt had assured the United States it would soon reseal its border with the Gaza Strip. An Arab diplomat said Egypt told the U.S. it expected the Palestinians' exodus from Gaza to end by midday Thursday, but a senior U.S. official said Egypt has not been precise about when it will stop the flow.

The crush of people at the border appeared to increase at midday, with Gazans saying they feared the Egyptian authorities would soon close the crossing.

"Everyone is rushing into Egypt before they seal it off," said Mohammed Abu Amra, a Palestinian man walking with crutches.

He slipped and fell as he passed into Egypt.

"We need to understand that when Gaza is open to the other side we lose responsibility for it," Vilnai said, according to his office. "So we want to disconnect from it."

"We want to stop supplying electricity to them, stop supplying them with water and medicine, so that it would come from another place," Vilnai said.

Israel will continue to be responsible for the flow of such supplies into the Gaza Strip until an alternative is found, the office quoted him as saying.

Israel said earlier that it would not send emergency shipments of fuel on Thursday, as it had initially promised earlier in the week. The fuel is needed to run Gaza City's power plant, which had shut down after Israel imposed a complete closure on Gaza last week, in response to rocket attacks.

The Palestinian Energy Authority said the Gaza plant would have to shut down again by Sunday, unless shipments are renewed.

When Israel initially imposed a complete blockade last week, tacitly backed by Egypt, international aid groups voiced concern about an impending humanitarian crisis.

Israel is still trying to get clarification from Egypt on if and when it plans to close the border, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

In downtown Rafah, Palestinians could be seen buying cows, camels and horses and leading them back through the passage into Gaza. Men loaded with electronics equipment struggled to step through the broken opening.

Egyptian drivers idled their pickup trucks just inside Egyptian territory, charging incoming Palestinians $3.60 for a ride into downtown Rafah and neighboring El Arish.

Others carted cement bags, motorcycles, generators, gasoline cans and canned food toward Gaza to be unloaded and handed over the border.

Several Egyptian armored vehicles towed cars away from a lot on the Egyptian side of the border, attaching ropes to empty pickups and dragging them hundreds of yards away.

Egyptian police were also deployed on main shopping thoroughfares and in alleyways in Rafah, but they did not attempt to force Palestinians to leave the city.

The border breach has been a boon to Hamas, the militant group whose hold on Gaza was made more difficult by border closures. The closures, which were tightened after Hamas seized control of Gaza by force in June, have led to severe shortages of cement, cigarette and other basic goods.

Hamas has used the border breach which was carefully planned, with militants weakening the metal wall with blow torches about a month ago to push its demand for reopening the border passages, this time with Hamas involvement. Such an arrangement would in effect end the international sanctions against the Islamic militants.

Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu suggested Thursday that Hamas would seek a role in a future on the Gaza-Egypt border.

"An open border like this has no logic," he said. "We are studying the mechanism of having an official crossing point."

It appears unlikely Egypt will acquiesce. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been under intense public pressure at home in recent days to alleviate the suffering of Gazans under blockade. However, Egypt would likely be reluctant to have an open border with a territory ruled by Islamic militants.

Israel, which withdrew from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation, has expressed concern that militants and weapons might be entering Gaza to bolster rocket launchings toward Israel, and said responsibility for restoring order lies with Egypt.

The United States also expressed concern about the border breach. Hamas called on its bitter rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party, to help come up with new arrangements for Gaza's crossings.

Meanwhile, trucks and donkey carts pulled up to the Egyptian side, where goods were unloaded, carried across to the Gazan side and put in waiting trucks.

Gaza businessman Abu Omar Shurafa received a shipment of 100 tons of cement, seizing an opportunity to stock up before the border closes again.

"Everyone is exerting all efforts to stock the reserves for six to seven months. We have to find a way to continue living," he said.

Still, he was also hopeful that this could be the beginning of a new arrangement. "A solution has to be like this," he said, referring to the flow of goods from Egypt.

The town of Rafah was divided in two when Israel captured the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war, and crossing the border has become increasingly difficult over the years.

The opening of the border began before dawn Wednesday, when masked gunmen used 17 explosive charges to tear down the border wall erected in 2001 by Israel when it controlled Gaza.

After news of the breach spread, people across Gaza boarded buses and piled into rickety pickup trucks heading for Egypt. It was a rare chance to escape Gaza's isolation.

By nightfall Wednesday, more than 1,000 Gazans had reached El-Arish, about 37 miles south of Rafah, walking the streets and shopping in stores that stayed open late.

Egyptian security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to talk to the media, said that Palestinians were not being allowed to travel further south than El-Arish.

Israeli tanks raided the northern Gaza Strip overnight and razed an area where militants launch rockets, the army said. Troops shot a Palestinian who fired an anti-tank missile at the forces, the army spokesman said. Israeli radio stations said the man was killed. Palestinian medics could not immediately reach the area to ascertain the man's condition.

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