Egypt closes Rafah border

Troops stop any new cross-border movement, allow those stuck on wrong side of frontier to return home.

standing on Rafah 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
standing on Rafah 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Egyptian troops closed the last breach in Egypt's frontier with the Gaza Strip on Sunday morning, witnesses and Hamas security officials said, bringing to an end a week and a half of free movement for Gazans. The troops were allowing Gazans and Egyptians who remained on the wrong side of the border to cross back, the witnesses and officials said, but had stopped allowing any new cross-border movement. Egyptian soldiers patrolled in armored personnel carriers and stood in sandbagged emplacements on nearby rooftops, and dozens of Gazans looked on as the Egyptians resealed the border, Hamas security officials said. No violence was reported. The Hamas officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. After severely rebuking Hamas leaders for their movement's role in tearing down the metal wall separating the Gaza Strip and Egypt, the Egyptians decided over the weekend to completely reseal the border and stop the influx of Palestinians into Sinai. Hamas said it would "cooperate" with Egyptian efforts to close the border. Senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar called on Palestinians not to resort to violence against Egyptian border guards. Zahar, who was speaking to reporters upon his return to the Gaza Strip from talks in Egypt, said Hamas would help the Egyptians restore law and order along the breached border. He said Hamas has received assurances from the Egyptians that they would pursue their efforts to solve the crisis surrounding the Rafah border crossing. The Egyptians had also agreed to solve the problem of some 5,000 Palestinians who were stranded in the north Sinai town of el-Arish and who were seeking to travel to third countries through Cairo International Airport, Zahar said. Egypt has also promised to admit to its hospitals dozens of Palestinians who were in need of urgent medical treatment, he added. "Harsh conditions" in the Gaza Strip forced the Palestinians to knock down the barrier with Egypt, Zahar said. "I personally couldn't find cement to build the grave of my son who died recently," he said. Zahar's 21-year-old son, Husam, was killed during an IDF operation against Hamas gunmen in Gaza City on January 15. Zahar's eldest son, Khaled, was killed in 2003 when an IAF F-16 dropped a bomb on his house in a failed attempt on Zahar's life. Israeli defense officials expressed satisfaction with Egypt's decision to seal off the border but predicted that violence would erupt between Egyptian security forces and Hamas gunmen. The officials said 17 openings had been blown in the fence and that it was unlikely that Hamas would stand as Egypt closed them. The officials said that as long as the border was open, terrorists would continue to try to infiltrate Sinai to attack tourist sites in the desert or along the Israeli-Egyptian border. On Friday, OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant beefed up forces in border-area communities, in case terrorists try to infiltrate Israel. One of the concerns is that Palestinian terrorists will try to abduct an Israeli into Sinai and then to Gaza. The officials said that while Israel was not part of the talks on the closure of the border, the defense establishment was in favor of the Hamas declaration earlier Saturday that Gaza would receive fuel and electricity from Egypt instead of from Israel. "This would be great," one defense official said. "We have no interest in continuing to supply them with anything and prefer that they get what they need from Egypt." Egypt's decision to close the border came after government officials in Cairo held separate talks last week with Hamas and Fatah leaders. The talks ended in failure as both Palestinian movements stuck to their original positions, sources close to the two parties said. Hamas rejected Fatah's demand to redeploy forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the Rafah border crossing in accordance with a US-brokered agreement that was reached in 2005. Hamas also rejected the return of European monitors to the terminal, insisting that the border should be controlled only by Palestinians and Egyptians. However, Muhammad Naser, a member of the Hamas delegation to the Cairo talks, said his movement would agree to the presence of international monitors at the border on condition that they live in the Gaza Strip or Egypt. He noted that the European Union monitors who were stationed at the border crossing until Hamas took over the Strip in June had lived in Israel. Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal reportedly told the Egyptians that his movement would agree to the return of Abbas's loyalists to the Rafah border crossing on condition that Hamas, too, would be permitted to play a central role in running the terminal. Mashaal, who was accompanied by Zahar from the Gaza Strip, also expressed strong opposition to attempts to revive the 2005 agreement. Abbas, for his part, refused to hold talks with Hamas leaders during his brief visit to Cairo. He dismissed the possibility that Hamas would be given any role in controlling the Rafah border crossing. Hamas, he told the Egyptians, couldn't be a party to any security arrangements in the Gaza Strip because it had seized power there using violence. "If they want to talk, they must first give up control over the Gaza Strip and recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority," Abbas was quoted as saying. PA officials told The Jerusalem Post the Egyptians had severely rebuked the Hamas leaders for encouraging hundreds of thousands of Gazans to enter Egypt after large parts of the barrier were blown up. They added that the Egyptians also attacked Hamas for dispatching members of its armed wing, Izzadin Kassam, to Egypt to carry out terrorist attacks on Israel. In the past few days, the Egyptians are said to have arrested at least two dozen Hamas men who were carrying explosives and various weapons. Egyptian security sources said the men had confessed to planning to launch attacks on Israeli targets from Egypt. Over the weekend, Egyptian security forces arrested two armed Palestinians in el-Arish who were planning to attack Israeli tourists in Sinai, the sources said. They were identified as brothers Hani and Rami Hamdan. The EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, was expected to arrive in Cairo for talks on the border crisis with Egyptian officials late Saturday. The Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, was also planning a trip to the region in the coming days to address the standoff. In a related development, the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, said he would like to see Gaza's economy cut its ties with Israel, and instead receive fuel and electricity from Egypt. "We have said from the days of our election campaign that we want to move toward economic disengagement from the Israeli occupation," Haniyeh told the pro-Hamas daily Palestine. "Egypt has a greater ability to meet the needs of Gaza," he added. Haniyeh's adviser Ahmad Youssef told Ashark Alawsat that the Palestinians in Gaza want to stop using the Israeli shekel and exchange it for an Arab currency. Youssef also said that during meetings in Cairo, the Hamas delegation had requested that the Gaza-Egypt border be officially opened for trade. Also Saturday, following a week of relative quiet in Sderot and other Gaza-border communities, four Kassam rockets slammed into the western Negev. Two children were evacuated to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon in shock and with ringing in their ears. The rockets struck open fields at the entrance to Sderot. On Thursday, two rockets were fired into the Negev. AP contributed to this report