Palestinians pour into Egypt as gunmen blast border

Thousands of Gaza civilians trapped in their territory by a tight Israeli blockade poured into Egypt today to buy food, fuel and other scarce supplies after masked Palestinian gunmen blasted the border wall.

Egyptian border guards and Hamas police took no action as Palestinians hurried over the border and began returning with bags of food, boxes of cigarettes and plastic bottles of fuel.

The chaotic scenes came on the sixth day of a complete closure of Gaza, imposed by Israel and backed by Egypt, in response to an increase in Gaza rocket attacks on Israeli border towns.

Gaza’s Hamas rulers have orchestrated daily demonstrations on the Gaza-Egypt border, in an apparent attempt to appeal to Arab public opinion and pressure Egypt to open the passage.

Yesterday, Israel eased the closure slightly, transferring fuel to restart Gaza’s only power plant, and also sent in some cooking gas, food and medicine.

Israel has pledged to continue limited shipments because of concerns that a humanitarian crisis could develop in the already impoverished coastal territory.

But Gaza is still facing critical shortages of electricity, fuel and other supplies. The territory has been largely cut off from the world since June, when Hamas seized power in Gaza by force.

With the latest blockade, Israel is trying to halt rocket fire that has sent residents in Israeli border communities scrambling for shelter several times a day. The rockets have traumatised many residents and killed 12 Israelis in six years. Rocket fire has persisted despite the closure.

Before dawn today, Palestinian gunmen began blowing holes in the border wall running along the Gaza-Egypt border. Hamas security later closed most holes, but left two open and allowed free traffic through.

The wall divides the town of Rafah, which has a Gazan and an Egyptian side.

Gazan Ibrahim Abu Taha, 45, a father of seven, was in the Egyptian section of Rafah with his two brothers and 700 shekels (€124) in his pocket.

“We want to buy food, we want to buy rice and sugar, milk and wheat and some cheese,” he said, adding that he could get the foods in Gaza, but at three times the cost.

Faced with a crippling Israeli blockade, Hamas appears to be applying pressure on Egypt, which has co-operated with Israel’s sanctions by keeping the Rafah border closed. Scenes of privation in Gaza could force Egypt to ease the border closure, allowing the Hamas regime to relieve its isolation.

Off-duty Hamas security officer Abdel Rahman, 29, said this was his first time out of Gaza. “I can smell the freedom,” he said. “We need no border after today.”

He said no weapons were being smuggled in from Egypt. “You can buy weapons in Gaza, guns and RPGs,” he said, adding that it was easier to find weapons in Gaza than cancer medicine or Coke.

Weapons are generally brought into Gaza through smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

The identity of the gunmen who breached the border was not immediately clear. But in a statement, Hamas expressed support for the move, saying: “Blowing up the border wall with Egypt is a reflection of the ... catastrophic situation which the Palestinian people in Gaza are living through due to the blockade”.

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