Militants bulldoze new section of Egyptian border wall
Published: Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 4:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 4:03 p.m.
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Hamas-backed militants driving bulldozers knocked down more fortifications Friday along the Gaza-Egypt border — a brazen challenge to Egyptian riot police, who abandoned their positions after attempting to reseal the frontier using human chains, dogs and water cannons.
Militants in black clothing, some of them masked, stood atop a bulldozer as it knocked down concrete slabs under the watchful eyes of Hamas security officials, who turned a blind eye and were later seen patrolling on the Egyptian side of the border.
Thousands of Palestinians flooded into Egypt, pushing through several openings as Egyptian troops retreated to their bases on the other side of the border. Palestinians positioned cranes next to the border and lifted crates of supplies into Gaza, including camels and cows.
Hamas, after blasting open the border wall earlier in the week, offered further proof Friday that it simply cannot be ignored — driving home in no uncertain terms that a high price will be paid by anyone who seeks to shape Gaza's border arrangements without the militants' consent.
The day's events also underscored a great dilemma faced by Egypt: if it acts forcefully against the Gazans, it could anger its own people, who are sympathetic to the Palestinians' plight. But if it does nothing, it risks infiltration by Islamic militants.
Earlier Friday, Hamas gunmen fanned out along the Gaza side of the border, attempting to create order. For the first time since the border wall was torn down in a series of blasts on Wednesday, Gaza's Hamas rulers deployed their most elite forces to contain the rowdy crowd.
Hamas is clearly seeking to flex its muscles ahead of a potential new border agreement with Egypt that the militants hope will help end a 2-year-old blockade imposed by Israel and the West.
The group called for a three-way meeting among Hamas, Egypt and the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas to try to come up with a new border arrangement for Gaza.
"If the leadership in Ramallah refuses this call, we will not stand idle until the siege overruns life in Gaza," Hamas said in a statement.
The border breach provided a significant popularity boost to Hamas, which can claim it successfully broke through the closure that has deprived the coastal strip of normal trade and commerce.
"Hamas did this and when Egypt found resistance, it let up," said a joyous Reem Sahloul, 28, of Khan Younis. "Hamas proved stronger than the (Egyptian) army."
Egyptian forces shot in the air, fired water cannons and — in a particularly forceful display — deployed dogs to hinder the flow of Gazans into Egypt. Dogs are considered impure by observant Muslims.
As bulldozers ripped down the wall and Gazans jumped over, soldiers ran with their dogs to chase the infiltrators. Hamas militants then opened fire on the dogs, killing three of them.
An Egyptian soldier was slightly wounded in the leg, likely from gunshots fired by Hamas militants on the Gazan side, an Egyptian officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to the media. Five policemen were also injured by stones hurled by Gazans.
Egyptian ambulances rushed into a patch of land separating Egypt from Gaza to pick up the injured, with Hamas militants clearing the area of people so they could arrive and do their job.
Egypt has rejected any suggestion of assuming responsibility for the crowded, impoverished territory — a hot issue in light of comments this week by Israeli officials who said the border breach could relieve the Jewish state of its burdens in Gaza.
Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the territory in 2005, but it still controls access into and out of Gaza, in addition to its airspace and harbors. Israel also provides the fuel needed to run Gaza's only power plant — the withholding of which is currently causing severe power outages.
In an interview published Friday, President Hosni Mubarak decried the situation in Gaza as "unacceptable" and called on Israel to "lift its siege" and "solve the problem."
"They should get things back to normal according to previous agreements and understandings," Mubarak told the weekly Al-Osboa.
He also invited rival Palestinian factions to Cairo for talks, but did not mention a date. Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha told the Al-Jazeera TV that Hamas' supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, was ready to accept the invitation. But Abbas' representative in Egypt, Nabil Shaath, said Fatah had made no decision.
Sami Abu Zuhri, another Hamas spokesman, said Palestinians had to keep the barrier open "until the crossings are reopened."
"The gaps shouldn't be closed because they provide urgent assistance to the Palestinians," he said.
Both Egypt and Israel restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006, and further tightened the closure after Hamas seized control of the area by force last June.
Gazans took full advantage of the open border to stock up on desperately needed supplies and renew links to the other side.
The influx included a gaggle of Palestinian women in finely embroidered dresses and fresh makeup, heading to relatives' weddings in Egypt they said had been hastily moved up to allow Gazan family members to attend.
Yousef Mohammed, 17, of Gaza, said he waited until Friday to make the trip because he was trying to get together enough money to shop in Egypt. "They don't want us to go in," he said, pointing at the riot police.
By mid-afternoon, Egyptians eased up on the attempts to restrict the cross-border movement. Hundreds of riot police suddenly left a border crossing at Rafah, to march back into the Egyptian side of the divided town, and Gazans again streamed by the hundreds through the regular crossing.
Egyptian Amira Ali, 39, carrying her toddler son and holding a 6-year-old son by the hand, said she wanted to visit her mother-in-law in Gaza. "Of course, I'm afraid (of being trapped in Gaza), but will try to go for a while so my mother-in-law can see the kids," she said.
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