Gazan masses foil attempt to seal off Rafah border

38 Egyptian policemen wounded in scuffles; Cairo fears radical groups could use chaos to destabilize gov't, "occupy northern Sinai."

egypt rafah gaza 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
egypt rafah gaza 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Egypt's attempts to reseal its border with the Gaza Strip have failed, as tens of thousands of Palestinians continued to pour into Sinai for the fourth consecutive day Saturday. At least 38 Egyptian border policemen have been hospitalized, some in critical condition, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said. Egyptian security officials expressed fear over the weekend that Hamas and other radical Islamist organizations would take advantage of the chaos to try to destabilize President Hosni Mubarak's regime. Cairo was now caught between the hammer and the anvil, the officials said. On the one hand, they said, Egypt did not want to use force against the Palestinians for fear of being accused by the Arabs of taking part in the blockade on the Gaza Strip; on the other hand, the Egyptians were very worried that Hamas and its allies would "occupy" the northern Sinai, turning it into a center for Islamist terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida. The Egyptian authorities are now focusing their efforts on preventing Gazans from heading toward Cairo and other cities. Authorities also warned Egyptians not to allow Palestinians to stay with them. According to Egyptian sources, many Palestinians are planning to travel to Cairo for various reasons, including for medical treatment, enrolling in universities and using Cairo International Airport to fly out of the country. Some Egyptians were also worried that Israel would exploit the situation to try to "drag" Egypt back into the Gaza Strip. Husam Sweilem, a retired Egyptian army general, voiced concern that Israel was planning to push Egypt to annex the Strip and to hand the West Bank over to Jordanian control, thus "ending the dream of establishing a Palestinian state." In Ramallah, Palestinian Authority officials said Hamas was using the crisis to extract concessions from the Egyptians on the issue of the Rafah border crossing. The officials expressed "disappointment" over Mubarak's call for unconditional talks between Fatah and Hamas. Mubarak proposed in a newspaper interview that representatives of the two movements come to Cairo for talks. "I want this language of violence to stop," Mubarak was quoted as saying. "Peace could be achieved on the basis of international resolutions and agreements that demand the establishment of a Palestinian state." PA President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the proposal, saying he would talk to Hamas only if it ended its "coup" in the Gaza Strip. "Hamas has committed a crime against the Palestinian people and their unity and dream," he said in a speech. "But Hamas is part of the Palestinian people. We can't ignore them, and they can't ignore us." Abbas will meet Mubarak Wednesday in Cairo to discuss the crisis on the Gaza-Egypt border, an Abbas aide said Saturday. Hamas welcomed Mubarak's initiative and said it was prepared to resume talks with Fatah immediately and without condition. Egyptian border guards were forced to pull back from the Gaza border on Saturday morning, less than 24 hours after they were dispatched to the area to block the Palestinians. Ignoring warning shots fired into the air by the border guards, Gazans used bulldozers to open new passages into Egypt, enabling hundreds of vehicles from the Strip to cross the border. Deeper into northern Sinai, Egyptian authorities also failed to stop Palestinians from entering el-Arish, where dozens of cars with Gaza license plates were seen lining up at gas stations. Shopkeepers were ordered to close their businesses. "The Egyptian authorities have decided to keep the border open to allow Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to stock up on supplies," said a top government official in Cairo. The minister accused the Palestinians of "provocations" at the border and warned that his country would not tolerate attacks on its troops. In Cairo, Mubarak chaired a cabinet meeting to assess the situation along the border. AP contributed to this report