Egyptian forces brandishing electrified batons stopped Gaza cars from crossing the breached border Sunday and tightened security at checkpoints to try to confine Palestinians who moved freely into Egypt for a fifth straight day.
Regional leaders scrambled for a solution to the collapse of the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip after Palestinian militants blasted through the partition with explosives on Wednesday. Tens of thousands of Gazans, desperate for food and fuel after Israel sealed off the territory, have flooded into Egypt with no border controls.
Israel closed its border with Gaza last week and cut off fuel shipments following intensified rocket barrages from the territory controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas. The breach of the Gaza-Egypt border punched a hole in the blockade which had been tacitly backed by Egypt.
On the Egyptian side of the town of Rafah, which had previously been divided in half by the border partition, many stores were still open and people carried their purchases through the muddy streets despite a chilly drizzle. Merchants said some stores closed because they ran out of inventory.
Gasoline vendors were still filling jerry cans to take back to Gaza Strip.
“I can afford to get wet, but I can’t afford to go hungry,” said Gazan Adel Abdullah Moussa, dripping wet in the rain and carrying a yellow gas can in one hand and his year-old baby in the other.
Egypt struggled to reimpose control. One of the gaps in the border partition was blocked with piles of sand and border police stopped Palestinian cars from entering Egypt and Egyptian cars from crossing into Gaza. The Egyptian border police were armed with black batons that can deliver a powerful electric shock for crowd control.
Hamas help police
Hamas-affiliated forces, many of them bearded and dressed in blue camouflage uniforms, were on both the Egyptian and the Gaza sides of the border crossing, jointly policing it with the Egyptians. They encouraged Gaza motorists to return to the Palestinian territory.
Before the border breach, Hamas had no role in patrolling Gaza’s borders.
Hamas has long refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist and is sworn to destroy the Jewish state. Gaza has been largely isolated from the rest of the world since the Islamic militants won parliamentary elections in 2006.
Both Egypt and Israel restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza after Hamas won the election and further tightened the closure after the group seized control of the area by force from rival Fatah faction last June.
The border with Egypt had been controlled by the Palestinian Authority, headed by Fatah, jointly with Israel and European monitors. But the border had been mostly closed since Hamas’ seizure of Gaza in June.
“Egypt will take necessary actions and measures to control the border in Gaza soon,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, following a meeting in Cairo with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Outside Rafah, police increased activity at checkpoints to stop Palestinians from entering the rest of Egypt and in the nearby town of El-Arish, security forces approached Palestinians on the streets and ordered them home.
The signs of tightening border controls dismayed at least one Egyptian who drove his truck from the Suez Canal city of Port Said about 180 miles away, planning to sell a wardrobe and a gold-colored living room set in Gaza.
“It’s not fair,” said 23-year-old Mohammed Hussein. “Let the people come in and shop and let us make money.”
While the forces tried to control car traffic across the border, pedestrians were freely moving back and forth, buying goods.
Merchants refusing to sell
Palestinians who had managed to sneak into El-Arish said that after a five-day purchasing spree, people would now no longer sell them anything or give them a place to stay the night, apparently under orders from security.
Aboul Gheit said Egypt supported the international brokered agreement that involved a border jointly supervised by the Israelis, Palestinian authorities and European monitors — something Hamas vehemently rejects.
“We need to reach a new agreement for a Palestinian-Egyptian border crossing through bilateral meetings between Hamas, Fatah and Egypt,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Sunday.
“We want to make it clear to all the parties concerned that Rafah crossing is a Palestinian-Egyptian crossing border and we are not going to accept any situation that will contradict that.”
Israel has expressed growing concern about the possible influx of Palestinian militants into areas of Egypt that border Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday that Israel would not let a humanitarian crisis develop in Gaza.
The border breach provided a significant popularity boost to Hamas, which can claim it ended the closure that has deprived the coastal territory of normal trade and commerce.
Egypt has rejected any suggestion of assuming responsibility for the crowded, impoverished territory after Israeli officials suggested the border breach could relieve Israel of any further responsibility for Gaza.
Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza 2005, but still controls Gaza’s airspace and coastline. Israel also provides the fuel needed to run Gaza’s only power plant. It has recently withheld that fuel, causing severe power outages.