Gaza goes on shopping frenzy as borders open

Shopkeepers in Egypt were quick to raise their prices when suddenly confronted by hordes of eager Palestinian customers today.

Up went the cost of milk, taxi rides and cigarettes.

However, the increases did not deter long-denied Gazans. Masked Palestinian gunmen blew holes into the Gaza-Egypt border wall earlier today, and thousands of Gazans trapped in their territory by a tight blockade poured into Egypt to buy food, fuel and other supplies that have become scarce.

As soon as the border was broken open they crowded into shops in the Egyptian town of Rafah, buying anything they could.

Children bought soft drinks and chocolate, women scooped up cheeses and cleaning products and many men stocked up on cigarettes – all expensive, or simply unavailable in Gaza because of Israel’s shutdown of cargo crossings in June, after the Hamas’ takeover.

Other Palestinians staggered back into Gaza carrying televisions, and others sported brand-new mobile phones.

In Gaza City cigarette prices, which had rocketed during the closure, started to drop. The price of Egyptian cigarettes fell by about 70%. The dollar rose against the Israeli shekel, since Gazans were using the US currency for buying in Egypt.

Crowds waited at roadsides in Gaza City, trying to catch rides to the border. Taxi driver Mahmoud Abu Ouda had made one trip to Rafah, but then stopped because he had run out of fuel.

“The city is empty of cabs. They are all in Rafah,” he said.

Rami al-Shawwa, a 23-year old falafel seller, said he planned to head to Egypt in the afternoon, after his brothers returned from there. He is going to buy waterpipe tobacco and just “smell some new air.”

“We have been living in darkness for days, and closure before,” he said, adding that he was not concerned about getting stuck in Egypt. “For my 23 years in Gaza, a year in Egypt will make up for it.”

Osama Hassan ,25, and his 17-year-old fiancee Sarah went to home-supplies stores in Rafah. He bought a speciality mattress for his injured back and she gathered kitchen utensils.

The two had initially put off their wedding until July because they lacked the basics for setting up a household. After today’s shopping spree, they plan to wed next week.

Hassan is a former Fatah fighter, but said he was grateful to rival Hamas for opening the border. “I’m Fatah, but today, I wish I could see (Hamas prime minister Ismail) Haniyeh and kiss his forehead, because without the gunmen doing this, we would have been stuck in the Gaza Strip,” Hassan said.

Even the sick had their day. Four Palestinians in wheelchairs were pushed to the Egyptian side, where ambulances picked them up to take them for treatment in Arish, a larger Egyptian town close to Gaza.

Egyptian police sat in armoured vehicles, watching, but not disturbing the Gazans who poured through the border on foot, with donkey carts and motorcycles.

Hamas gunmen controlled the Gaza side of the border, and plainclothes Hamas militants mingled with the shoppers in Egypt, wary of them returning with weapons or explosives which could potentially be used against them. Hamas police stopped one man and confiscated seven hand guns.

The shoppers depleted Rafah stores, prompting one Egyptian to turn the tables. Ashraf el-Sayyidt rode his motorbike into the Gaza Strip to buy bread there. “The Palestinians left us with nothing. It’s true, they are dear to us, but today, they were like locusts,” he said.

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