Hamas calls for shared border control with Egypt

300,000 Gazans pour into Sinai after holes blasted in Rafah fence.

rafah crowd 224 88 (photo credit: )
rafah crowd 224 88
(photo credit: )
Egyptian security forces on Thursday morning were turning back hundreds of Palestinian cars that were attempting to pass into Egypt through the ruined Rafah border. The security personnel were hitting the vehicles with clubs and ordering the Palestinians to return to their homes in Gaza, Army Radio reported. Earlier, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak instructed his forces at the border to detain any Palestinian who illegally crossed the border. Mubarak's statement came several hours after the Egyptian Foreign Ministry announced that Egypt does not intend to shut off the wide-open Rafah border with the Gaza Strip. Egypt's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassam Zaki told CNN that the border will remain open "as long as this is a humanitarian crisis." After the "shopping spree," Zaki said, "We expect everyone to go back to Gaza to their homes within a short period of time." "We are not opening the Rafah crossing just for everybody to cross - we're opening it because it's a very dire humanitarian situation," he added. Hamas leaders on Wednesday called for an "urgent and speedy" meeting with representatives of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to work out new, shared arrangements to control the border crossing in Rafah. The call came shortly after Palestinian gunmen blew up large parts of the wall separating the Gaza Strip from Sinai, enabling tens of thousands of Palestinians to cross freely into Egyptian territory. Palestinian and Egyptian sources estimated that some 300,000 Palestinians entered Egypt during the day. Although many had returned home by nightfall, the sources said thousands planned to spend the night in Egypt. According to the sources, hundreds of Palestinians who had been stranded on the Egyptian side of the border for the past seven months seized the opportunity to return to their homes in Gaza. Palestinian sources in the Strip said dozens of gunmen belonging to several armed groups used land mines to blow at least 20 holes in the metal border fence. Later, Palestinians used bulldozers to remove barbed wire and concrete slabs and to create paths for pedestrians and vehicles. Egyptian border guards watched from rooftops and security towers as men, women and children began pouring into Egypt. Eyewitnesses said the Egyptian authorities had been caught by surprise by the large number of people entering Sinai by foot, donkey carts and cars. Many Gazans were seen returning home with flour, cigarettes, chickens, soft drinks and motorcycles, they said. Hamas policemen deployed along the border carried out random checks of bags, confiscating some pistols and rifles. Ibrahim Abu Taha, 45, a Palestinian father of seven, was in the Egyptian section of Rafah with his two brothers and $185 in his pocket. "We want to buy food, we want to buy rice and sugar, milk and wheat and some cheese," Abu Taha said, adding that he would also buy inexpensive Egyptian cigarettes. Abu Taha said he could get the basic foods in Gaza, but at three times the cost. "Freedom is good. We need no border after today," said unemployed Muhammad Abu Ghazal, 29. "This is a great day," shouted a jubilant woman carrying an infant. "We have been starving in the Gaza Strip. We urge [Egyptian] President Hosni Mubarak to keep the border open and to help the poor people in the Gaza Strip." Mubarak said Wednesday he had ordered his troops to allow the Gazans to cross into Egypt "because they were starving." Mubarak, who has been under heavy pressure from Palestinians and Egyptians to reopen the Rafah terminal, told reporters in Cairo that when Gazans began storming their way through the border, he ordered the Egyptian army to allow them in to purchase food. "I told them to let them come in and eat and buy food, and then return them later, as long as they were not carrying weapons," he said. "The Palestinians in Gaza are starving due to the Israeli siege. Egyptians troops escorted them to buy food and then allowed them to return to the Gaza Strip." He dismissed calls by Egyptian opposition parties to recall his ambassador from Israel in protest against the Israeli blockade. "If that happened, I wouldn't be able to talk to the Israelis. One has to be reasonable in such matters," Mubarak said. Hamas leaders expressed satisfaction with the developments at the border. They also voiced readiness to work out a deal with Egypt and the PA over joint control of the Rafah border crossing. Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said his movement would insist that the border be placed under exclusive Palestinian and Egyptian control. "We in Hamas and our brothers in the Palestinian government headed by Ismail Haniyeh declare our readiness to reach an understanding with the brothers in Ramallah [the Fatah-controlled PA] and the brothers in Egypt on how to manage the border crossings," Mashaal said. "The most important criterion for lifting the siege on Gaza is that the Rafah crossing be opened and be placed under the exclusive control of Palestinians and Egyptians without any blackmail. We don't want to control anything. We only seek freedom and relief for the Palestinian people," he said. Mashaal appealed to the Arab countries to work toward ending the international boycott of the Hamas government and to lift the siege on the Gaza Strip. "I am addressing all the Arabs - don't say that there is an international agreement concerning the Rafah crossing," he said. "No one can believe that you can't lift the siege. Don't deceive yourselves." In Gaza City, Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh called for an urgent meeting with Egyptian and PA officials to work out a new agreement for running the border crossing. "We don't want to be the only ones in control of these matters," Haniyeh said. "The Palestinians are not only demanding food and fuel supplies. We want an end to the siege and the reopening of all the border crossings." Haniyeh reiterated Hamas's readiness to reach a "comprehensive and mutual" truce with Israel. In Ramallah, PA officials rejected Hamas's call for joint control of the Rafah crossing and expressed fear that Wednesday's events would harm the Palestinians' relations with Egypt. Nimer Hammad, political adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said Hamas was trying to embarrass the Egyptians and to "drag" the Arab world in the pursuit of its "narrow interests." AP contributed to this report.