updated 9/18/2005 6:16:09 AM ET 2005-09-18T10:16:09

Palestinian security forces sealed Gaza’s southern border early Sunday, halting a chaotic flood of people into Egypt in the past few days that began shortly after Israel withdrew from the area, officials said.

Adnan Barbach, a spokesman for the Palestinian National Security Forces, said all the gaps in the border had been closed, and 2,000 security personnel were now deployed along the frontier. He said the Palestinians were working with Egypt to make sure all Gazans could return home.

Officers were seen patrolling the border area early Sunday and preventing people from crossing. Angry Palestinians turned around but threatened to return with Hamas militants and homemade rockets. A helicopter hovered overhead.

On Saturday, Palestinian crowds threw stones at both Palestinian and Egyptian police, who fired in the air. Palestinians tore down parts of a wire fence, surged through the opening and knocked baton-wielding Egyptian security forces to the ground.

“We were locked up by the Jews, now the Egyptians are going to lock us up?” said Rafah resident Kamel Tarabini. “If they close this border, Egyptians and Palestinians will become enemies.”

Security along the border broke down after Israel completed its withdrawal from Gaza on Monday. With the Israelis gone, thousands of Palestinians freely crossed into Egypt without any border controls.

Although most people traveled to shop, celebrate or reunite with relatives, Palestinian officials acknowledged that drugs and weapons were smuggled into Gaza.

Test for Abbas
Ending the border mayhem has emerged as a key test for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is under heavy Israeli pressure to assert control in Gaza. After talks with Egyptian security officials, Abbas had promised to have the border under control by early this week.

The issue has put Abbas in a difficult situation. With legislative elections scheduled in January, he needs to secure freedom of movement for his people or risk losing support to the rival Hamas movement.

But the chaos along the border makes him look weak in the eyes of the world and will make it tougher to negotiate a future border deal with Israel.

Before withdrawing, Israel agreed with Egypt to seal the Rafah terminal, Gaza’s main gateway to the outside world.

Israel said it would consider allowing the terminal to reopen in six months, if the Palestinians rein in militant groups during that time. Israel fears the militants will smuggle weapons into Gaza. In the meantime, all traffic in and out of Gaza is to be rerouted through alternate, Israeli-controlled crossings.

The Palestinians want immediate control of the crossing. They say the free flow of people and goods across the border is essential for rebuilding Gaza’s shattered economy, and without free movement, Gaza essentially remains under Israeli occupation.

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